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The Power of a Pet

Posted by Chris Corrigall
on January 14, 2021
Two senior women sitting on couch and petting a dog.

Many people say that a house doesn’t feel like a home without a four-legged, furry friend—particularly for seniors who have been lifelong pet owners.  The companionship of a pet has been shown to build self-esteem in the elderly, increase cognitive alertness, and lift the spirits of people with Alzheimer’s. Frequently, an animal can reach a person in a way that other people cannot.

Because of the many benefits of pets for seniors, Aegis Living has a housedog in many of our communities and offers a pet-friendly policy for residents who own pets. Aegis Living has found that pets encourage more interaction among our residents through joy, laughter, and shared memories of past pets. We feel animals can help to normalize an environment and put others at ease. Read on as we discuss a comprehensive overview of pet ownership for seniors.

Health Benefits of Pets for Seniors

Besides just being cute and cuddly, pets have health benefits for seniors that can improve their sense of wellbeing and help seniors lead a healthier lifestyle.

The physical health benefits include:

Lower Blood Pressure. Studies suggest that the act of petting a dog or cat lowers blood pressure. Sometimes referred to as the “pet effect.” Petting an animal elevates serotonin and dopamine levels that have calming properties that can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Pets also help relieve loneliness, depression, and other stress-related disorders known to lead to elevated blood pressure.

Increased Exercise and Physical Activity. Playing fetch, going for a daily walk, and bending over to pick up an animal can keep pet owners active and moving, which helps to reduce their risk for cardiovascular disease. Pets can motivate their owners to get off the couch to interact with them throughout the day, helping with physical health and mobility.

Improved Motor Skills. Playing with a ball or grooming a dog can help to coordinate eye-hand movement. Lifting or moving a pet or pet food can promote bilateral integration, using two hands together. Many activities with a pet involve concentrated work with the hands that can improve motor skills and strength.

Beyond the physical benefits, there are mental benefits too!

Remain Social. Social interaction is vital to the health of a senior. Pets help the elderly connect with other people to stay social and get them out of the house. Many people will stop to pet a dog or ask a neighbor about their cat, who might not otherwise reach out to them. Groomers, pet walkers, pet store employees, and other pet owners can create a network of new friends and social opportunities for seniors.

Unconditional Love. Many seniors may be widowed or losing close friends in their later years. A pet can be a constant companion. With unconditional love and acceptance, a beloved pet can elevate its owner’s mood and bring happiness.

A Sense of Purpose. Caring, feeding, and walking a pet can give pet owners both a sense of purpose and a routine to their day. Focusing on the health and care of a pet can be meaningful for many seniors.

Questions for Seniors to Ask When Considering Owning a Pet

Lifestyles change with age. Seniors often downsize or move into long-term care communities. Physically, older adults may experience less stamina, strength, or mobility. Many seniors are on a fixed income and need to adhere to a budget. If your elderly loved one is considering pet ownership, they may need to ask themselves, and discuss with their family members or caregivers, if owning a pet is a good idea in their specific situation. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Will owning a pet jeopardize the senior’s health? Seniors who are unstable on their feet due to less balance and leg strength are at a higher risk of falling. A dog that jumps or yanks the leash on a walk could cause them harm. Dog training can be a worthwhile investment to make sure the dog is well-behaved. And caring for a pet can give seniors a sense of purpose, but it shouldn’t be a burden.
  • Can your loved one meet the needs of a pet? Dogs need to be walked. Would your loved one be up to the task physically? Or would they be able to afford a dog walker to meet their needs? Or would a lower-maintenance cat or fish be a better choice for a less mobile senior? And every pet will need to be fed and taken to the vet. Also, a pet may require medications, a special diet, grooming, and pet supplies. Would they financially be able to support an animal on their income?
  • Are pets allowed into their residence? Some condominiums, apartments, or senior living communities have a no-pet policy, so always check with management before bringing home a new furry friend.
  • Are they allergic? As seniors age, they can develop new allergies. Make sure your loved one is not allergic to dog hair, cat hair, or pet dander. Finding out they have allergies after getting a new pet could be incredibly disappointing.

How Seniors Can Find the Right Pet

Fits Their Lifestyle. To find the perfect match, consider the needs, lifestyle, and personality of the senior. Are they looking for a cuddly companion? An older, mellow lapdog or a feline friend would be a good match for someone less mobile. Do they want a pet that is minimal maintenance, like a fish or bird? Or are they looking for a reason to go on a walk daily, looking forward to training, or playing catch with a more energetic pup? Find a pet that matches the senior’s energy level. Regardless of what type of animal is chosen, the senior and new pet should spend some time together interacting to see if they are a personality match.

The Years Matter. Puppies and fuzzy kitties are fun but a lot of work. Young animals can tend to be underfoot and potential fall risks. Consider an older animal that has been trained and may even know a trick or two! An older pet can still provide all the love and affection with a developed personality, so you know if the pet and new owner are a good match.

Pet Size. Pets don’t always behave exactly as we want them to! Would your loved one be able to pick up the animal if they were in danger or needed to be moved? And the bigger the pet, the more space that you will need to care for them properly. Pets also come with supplies, cages, feeding areas, beds, and litter boxes for cats, would there be space in the home to fit a pet and their necessities?

Care Needs. Some pets are more work than others. The difference between a goldfish and Golden Retriever is vast. Consider what a day would look like for the two new friends and if the senior is up for the task. Also, consider barriers, like grooming every few weeks, driving to pick up pet supplies and carrying those supplies into the house, or finding a trustworthy breeder with an available animal.

Adapting. Research pet products for the animal that your loved one is considering and figure out if there are items that could make their life easier. A robot vacuum could clean up fur and dander without having to push a vacuum. An electric mop could make cleaning accidents easier. A pre-programmed food dispenser can deliver portioned meals at a specified time each day or a water fountain that holds much more than a single dish can be filled less often. Self-cleaning litter boxes are more expensive but would save stooping over and back pain. For seniors with arthritic hands, adaptive leashes have comfortable grips and more padding. Pet wipes, monthly toy subscriptions, grooming tools, pet car seats, and stairs to reach the bed can help ease pet ownership for your loved one.

Finding a Pet. If your loved one is looking for a specific breed of dog or cat, a breeder would be helpful but typically they sell puppies and kittens. Visiting a shelter can be a wonderful way to meet a new pet in need of a good home. Some shelters specialize in cats, birds, and even rabbits. And don’t overlook online services, such as—a database filled with thousands of adoptable pets available locally.

The Downsides of Pet-Ownership for Seniors

Pets are great companions and worthwhile for many seniors. But no matter what your loved one owns, from a ferret, lizard, or bird to a cat or dog, pet ownership is not without its challenges.

The Commitment. Seniors may not want the added responsibility of owning and caring for a pet during their golden years when they have their own health and stress to manage. Some seniors may not want the emotional toll of watching a beloved pet’s health decline, suffer, or pass away. Don’t overlook the amount of time and level of dedication a pet will need.

Thinking Ahead. A source of concern and anxiety for many seniors is what will happen to their pet if they move into a long-term care community that does not allow animals. Who will care for their pet? To help with their decision to acquire a pet, research care facilities that allow pets in your area or determine who might be able to care for their pet if circumstances change.

The Expense. Many seniors on a fixed income may not have room in the budget for unexpected expenses that can happen with a pet. Pet insurance may help defer costly vet visits, but other expenses that aren’t covered by insurance would still need to be met—food, grooming, toys, bedding. Budgeting for a pet is a practical aspect of pet ownership.

Injury or Tripping Hazard. Issues with stability or vision can make a small pet a trip hazard. And a jumping dog could cause harm or a fall. A cat scratch can cause real damage to the thin skin of a senior and can even lead to infection if not properly washed and dressed. And physically, pet ownership can be difficult—just ask anyone who has tried to catch and medicate a frisky feline or active pup. Arthritic hands make grooming, ear cleaning, or even opening a pet’s medication bottle more difficult.

Cognitive Issues. Seniors in the early stages of memory loss may forget to eat or drink water themselves. If they fail to feed or provide water to a pet, this can be detrimental. You will want to ensure that your loved one can properly care for an animal and meet their needs.

Unsanitary. Owners need to be diligent about washing their hands, keeping litter boxes clean, thoroughly cleaning up accidents in the house, and regularly cleaning food bowls, water dishes, and bedding. For a senior struggling to meet their own bathing, laundry, and cleaning needs, a pet can be an added burden, and in some cases, harmful to their health.

Pet Therapy as an Alternative for Seniors

If you added up the pros and cons but decide that pet ownership is not a good fit, pet therapy can be a perfect alternative. Pet therapy includes the benefits of a pet without the worry of caring for an animal. The goal of pet therapy is to improve emotional, social, and cognitive function. Seniors can interact with an animal in a retirement community, long-term care facility, senior center, rehabilitation center, or even in their home. Therapy animals have a way of encouraging interaction with other seniors, their caregivers, and volunteer handlers.

Typically, dogs and cats are used in therapy, but some therapies include friendly farm animals and other domesticated animals. Accompanied by a handler, therapy animals are trained for obedience or chosen for their gentleness, so these well-behaved animals will not jump or get underfoot. These animals are comfortable meeting new people and understand how to interact with seniors in wheelchairs and walkers. A senior can find a profound sense of comfort and calm from petting an easygoing dog or listening to the strong purr of a fuzzy cat. Not everyone can own and care for a pet, but there are still meaningful ways for seniors to bond with animals through pet therapy. If you would like to visit one of our communities or meet one of our housedogs, schedule a tour at an Aegis Living community near you.

Profile image of Chris Corrigall

Chris Corrigall

Vice President of Life Enrichment

Chris began his career as an elementary school teacher, learning the importance of engagement. He pivoted to the number one luxury cruise line in the world, rising from manager to vice president of entertainment. In 2017 he became a Certified Dementia Trainer to better support Aegis’ residents living with dementia.

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