Science Supports Pets for Improving Mental Health in Seniors

Around 10% of people aged between 50 and 80 brought a new pet to their homes between March 2020 and January 2021 and some 55% of adults in this age group have a pet. Considering that this period of time was one of the most challenging in terms of mental health in recent history, the statistics are testimony to the positive impact that pets can have on human health. Many seniors face specific challenges that are not shared by younger Americans. Retirement, the loss of important work-related networks, and the death of loved ones can lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. The National Institute of  Mental Health, for instance, reports that about 20% of older adults have diagnosable mental disorders. Read on to discover the many ways in which pets can help seniors facing these mental challenges.

Battling Loneliness

There are 12 million people over 65 living alone in the US, according to the Pew Research Center. Pets not only provide companionship but also help seniors cope with help issues, be more physically active, and make social connections—as found in a 2019 University of Michigan study. Over three-quarters of pet owners say pets reduce their stress, and a similar percentage report that pets give their lives a sense of purpose. Around 46%, meanwhile, say that pets help keep their minds off pain. As for physical fitness, activities such as dog walking and other activities associated with caring for pets “force” owners to head outside, enjoy a walk, and benefit from the healing effects of nature. Meanwhile, tasks such as bathing and brushing dogs and cats, training them, and taking part in dog behavior and other classes are excellent means through which seniors can avoid sedentarism.

Dog Walking is Linked to a Lower Body Mass Index

Obesity in the elderly can have significant complications – including metabolic syndrome (a cluster of risk factors including increased waist circumference, hypertension, and other issues that raise the likelihood of diabetes and heart disease). In a study carried out at the University of Missouri, scientists found that dog ownership and walking are linked to increases in physical health and a lower body mass index among older adults. The researchers concluded that physicians should consider recommending dog ownership for seniors as a way to boost health and lower health care expenditures for this age group.

Animal Therapy Reduces Need for Pain Medication

It is amazing to think that animals can actually have an effect on the amount of medication human beings need to quell their pain. This is exactly what Loyola University Health System scientists found in a 2014 study. Their study focused on patients who were recovering from joint replacement therapy. Their findings indicated that patients who received animal-assisted therapy were able to get by with less medication than those who hadn’t received this therapy. The therapy simply comprised daily visits from specially trained dogs for five to 15 minutes. Patients who enjoyed these visits enjoyed a 28% less reduced need for pain medication. The researchers noted that the animal-human connection has long been known to reduce stress and generate a sense of well-being. They also have a healing potential whose full potential is yet to be untapped.

Challenges for Seniors Willing to Keep their Pets

Seniors with pets enjoy specific benefits but they also face unique challenges—including the costs that a pet can impose. A dog can cost between $380 and $1,170 per year (for food, vet expenses, toys, and the like), while a cat sets owners back between $480 and &870 annually. Pets can also have emergencies and/or require surgeries that can cost thousands of dollars, so it is important for seniors to crunch numbers to see if a pet is a realistic choice for them. A study published in the Journal of Safety Research, meanwhile, showed that dogs and pets contributed to injuries among senior owners, who can get hurt when they chase or trip over their pets. The risk of injuries can be prevented in various ways. Seniors should invest time in behavior classes for their pets. A personal pet trainer can also help ensure pets do not engage in dangerous behaviors such as jumping in front of their owner or walking between their legs. Owners can also attach bells to their pet’s collar so they are aware of when they are around.

Choosing the Perfect Pet

Seniors should also take into account factors such as their chosen pet type’s breed, disposition, exercise needs, and the like. For instance, cats sleep for up to 16 hours a day and they don’t need to be taken for walks, making them a little lower-maintenance than dogs. Different breeds also have their own needs. For instance, terriers like Jack Russells are very active and need lots of exercise while dogs like Basset Hounds, English Bulldogs, Bichon Frises and Pekingeses are considered lower-energy breeds. Seniors who wish to adopt a pet should visit the pet various times and spend time with them, take them for walks, and generally get to know the pet’s character to find a perfect fit.

Pet Estate Planning

Responsible pet owners consider what will happen to their pets in the future. Seniors wishing to be assured that their pet will continue to enjoy a good quality of life in the event that they cannot care for them anymore should consider estate planning. This involves adding their pet to their will, so that the animal continues to receive care from a person of trust. The will should stipulate a caretaker, write down expectations for the pet’s care, include any of the pet’s health needs, establish a fund for expenses, and create a trust fund so that expenses can be administered.

Pets can bring a host of benefits to the physical and mental health of older adults. They provide companionship, entertainment, and of course, a good reason to be more active. Seniors wishing to bring a pet home should consider factors such as expense, breed or pet type, and character. They should also consider pet estate planning to ensure their pet will always be well cared for.