Would your senior loved one benefit from having a pet? You may have heard the conventional wisdom, which has been circulating since the 1980s, that pet ownership is good for seniors’ cardiovascular health, or the more recent findings from a 2008 report by the Humane Society of Canada, which suggest that pet ownership offers numerous health benefits, including lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. There are many other benefits associated with having a four-legged friend - physical, mental, and social - but there are also responsibilities and risks associated with pet ownership that not all seniors can manage.
This post will help you make an informed choice about whether or not your senior loved one should explore the option of getting a canine or feline companion - and if the answer is ultimately that pet ownership isn’t the right choice, this post also makes suggestions as to how your loved one might still be able to benefit from some time spent with a cuddly creature.
When a Pet is Just What the Doctor Ordered
A pet can be a positive presence in a senior’s life for many reasons. Some of the health benefits pet owners often experience include:
- Fewer visits to the doctor’s office
- Lower cholesterol and blood pressure
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Increased physical activity
For seniors, whose health concerns very often include heart disease, high cholesterol, and decreased mobility, these benefits are very appealing. Furthermore, the positive impact of an animal companion is not exclusively physical. Mental health benefits include:
- Mental stimulation
- Decreased loneliness
- More laughter
- A daily routine which offers purpose
- Increased social connections, especially for those who walk their dogs
All in all, pets can do wonders for seniors’ health. For seniors who live alone, particularly those who are widowed, a pet provides companionship that staves off loneliness and depression, and, if the pet is a dog, the senior owner is encouraged to get out into the community to fulfill their pet’s exercise needs. The mental stimulation pets can provide - reading about the pet’s breed and/or needs, making sure the pet’s needs are met, engaging in play with the pet - are beneficial to seniors’ mental health and also serve as mental activities that can fight cognitive decline.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that seniors should partake in at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week (around 21 minutes a day), and dog ownership is a great way to meet this goal and even surpass it. Play at home (fetch with a dog or playing with a laser pointer with a cat, for example), while not a source of physical activity for the senior owner, can be an important source of entertainment, amusement, and enjoyment.
In times of ill health or injury, pets can be a great comfort. Pets are good at reading human emotions, and will often cuddle up to their owners to provide support when it’s needed. The presence of a pet in these moments can bring solace to a senior who is unwell and may be feeling as though they are alone in their suffering.
Choosing a Pet
There are always many factors to consider when deciding on a four-legged companion, regardless of the owner's age. For seniors, there are even more considerations, since there are some elements of pet ownership that can pose challenges for the elderly. When exploring options for your senior loved one, the following questions can be useful in guiding their decision, both before and after they have a potential pet in mind.
How mobile is your senior loved one? Simply put, cats require a lot less involved activity from their owners than dogs do. If walking a dog each day is not a manageable task for your loved one, a cat is likely the better option.
Have they owned a pet previously? Bringing a pet into the family often involves a learning curve and a period of adjustment. If your loved one has never had a pet before, they may find this adjustment somewhat overwhelming. Ideally, seniors who are looking into pet ownership will have had previous experience with animals. If they don’t have any experience but are still very interested in having a pet, a calmer, quieter pet, such as a senior cat, would be a good choice.
Are they in a position to financially support a pet? Pets are a financial commitment. The cost of their food, their toys, waste bags, leashes, and cat trees - it all adds up, and that's before veterinary bills are factored in. Your senior loved one should review their budget to make sure they can manage both the expected costs and any emergency expenses.
How old is the pet they’re considering? Puppies and kittens, while heartwarmingly adorable, are also mischievous, highly energetic, and prone to accidents. For these reasons, they are not the best choices as pets for seniors. Shelters and adoption advocacy groups generally recommend that seniors choose pets that are also in their senior years, or at the very least in middle age. These pets have calmed down, settled into routines, and are generally house-trained.
What is the pet’s temperament? The staff at most shelters can speak to the temperaments of their resident animals, and should be able to recommend a lazier pet with a relaxed attitude who would love to cuddle up in front of the television at night for a senior who struggles with mobility, or a dog that enjoys two twenty-minute walks per day for a senior who is looking to get out of the house regularly.
Does the pet have any health conditions? Like people, animals have a greater chance of developing health problems as they grow older. Adopting a middle-aged or senior dog is the best choice for a senior person, but this choice does mean that the adopted pet may have some pre-existing health conditions. Some pet illnesses are easier to deal with than others - a dog who will easily scarf down a pill hidden in a treat is much easier to medicate than a cat who fights every time it needs an injection, for instance. Just because a pet needs medication, that doesn’t automatically make that pet a bad choice for a senior; rather, it just means that the senior needs to have a full understanding of what treatments the pet requires in order to determine if they are able to provide that care.
When Pet Ownership May Not Work Out
While the presence of a pet in the home can be beneficial in many ways, pet ownership does involve a host of responsibilities, and dogs and cats have the potential to pose risks for the elderly. For these reasons, pets are not the best choice for all seniors, and it is equally important, after thinking through the benefits of pet ownership, to consider any reasons that it might not be a suitable choice for your loved one. The following list offers a few key things to consider.
1. Living Space
For seniors who live in houses, condos, or apartments, owning a pet is usually possible, though some condominiums and apartment buildings have rules that restrict or forbid pets on the property. Retirement homes or assisted living communities typically have ‘pet policies.’ Traditionally, these forms of senior housing have often not allowed pets on the premises, but as studies have revealed the benefits of pet ownership for seniors, more retirement and assisted living communities are allowing residents to have pets. If your loved one is living in a rental or any kind of seniors’ community, be sure to look into these policies.
It’s also important to remember that seniors’ living situations often change. In a few years, your parent may need to relocate to a place in which they’ll have a bit more support: perhaps they’ll move in with you and your family, or to a retirement community. Whatever the situation may be, it’s worth thinking about how your loved one’s future will play out when contemplating pet ownership. If they still have their pet at the time they must relocate, what will happen to it? Do the retirement residences your family is considering for the future allow pets? Is there another family member in the area who is able to take the pet into their own home, if the time comes when this is necessary? What is the plan for the pet if your senior loved one’s health declines?
It isn’t pleasant to think of a future in which your loved one loses a degree of their independence or mobility or suffers from an illness, but as a responsible potential pet owner, it’s important to think through these possibilities. It would be unfair to the pet, and likely heartbreaking for your elderly loved one, to have to send their beloved companion to a shelter.
All pets require a degree of caretaking. If a senior’s mobility has decreased to the extent that walking a dog would pose difficulties, a cat may be a better option, but there is mobility involved in caring for a cat as well, including bending over to fill food dishes and scoop the litter box.
Pets can also present a fall risk; even the best-trained pets occasionally turn into tripping hazards. This may or may not be something your senior loved one feels they are able to manage. When discussing the possibility of a pet, keep your loved one’s mobility and steadiness on their feet in mind.
If you believe having a cat or dog underfoot might pose a danger to your loved one, smaller pets, like hamsters or guinea pigs, are also an option.
3. Time Commitment
The time commitment required by pets varies depending on the type of pet - a hamster, for instance, is a lesser time commitment than a dog - but every pet has needs that require the time of their owner. Feeding, grooming, picking up waste, play and/or exercise time, along with the occasional veterinary visit, are necessary to keep pets healthy and happy. If your senior loved one has several of their own health concerns or other time-consuming commitments in their everyday lives, a pet may not be right for them. Unfortunately, a senior who spends a great deal of time at doctors’ appointments or physical therapy is unlikely to have enough time to dedicate to a pet. Seniors who tend to travel fairly often or who spend most of their time out of the home volunteering or socializing may also not be suited to pet ownership - while pets can be wonderful sources of companionship, if your loved one is finding fulfillment in other parts of their life, they should not sacrifice their visits to friends and family or attendance at social gatherings in order to stay home with a pet.
4. Allergies & Other Health Conditions
Your loved one may have a lifelong allergy to dander, or they may have developed allergies over time. Seniors with mild allergies might be alright with putting up with a slightly stuffy nose in exchange for all the benefits of pet ownership, but for most seniors with dander allergies, pet ownership is not ideal. The majority of seniors are on a host of medications, and it is an unnecessary burden to add allergy medications into the mix.
While most diseases that infect pets are not communicable to humans, pets can and do carry and shed certain bacteria. Seniors should make sure their pet has been to the vet recently before assuming ownership and make sure to maintain a regular schedule of veterinary visits in order to ensure that their pet is in good health. Seniors with weak immune systems may want to have a conversation with their doctor before committing to pet ownership. Pets that go outside - dogs and outdoor cats - tend to bring bacteria into the home; while this is not a major concern for most people, it is something might impact seniors with weakened immune systems.
Finally, pets can pose an injury risk to seniors whose skin has been made particularly delicate by conditions like diabetes. Both dogs and cats have claws that need to be trimmed. If your senior loved one has easily damaged skin, they will have to be very careful to keep their pet’s claws cut short, either by doing the trimming themselves, getting assistance from a family member or friend, or taking the pet to a groomer. Though declawing cats has been determined to be an inhumane practice, many shelters do have cats who were declawed by previous owners and are looking to be adopted - these cats can be great companions for seniors.
Keep in mind that some of these complications are manageable, particularly those involving mobility and time. A family member or friend may be able to help out with tasks like dog-walking, and there are automated, “self-scooping” litter boxes on the market for cats. There may even be volunteers in your loved one’s area that can help out with pet care - Elderdog, for instance, recognizes the importance that dogs play in their senior owners’ lives and endeavours to help seniors keep their pets even if they have mobility struggles or health concerns. Elderdog's volunteers assist owners by walking dogs, carrying heavy bags of food, providing transport to the vet, and even helping out with hygienic care for dogs, all throughout Canada.
The Middle Ground
If, for whatever reason, pet ownership isn’t a possibility for your senior loved one, that doesn’t mean they can’t experience the benefits of interacting with a furry friend. Many community programs, such as Therapeutic Paws of Canada and Pet Partners in the US, facilitate visits between seniors and dogs in seniors’ centres, assisted living communities, retirement homes, and nursing homes.
Even if there is not an official volunteer program which organizes interactions between pets and the elderly in your loved one’s community, that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy some quality time with a pet. If you know someone with a good-natured cat or dog, ask if they might be willing to visit your loved one, or have your loved one over to their place. An hour or two spent curled up with a cat or walking through a park with a dog still supplies mental and physical benefits - with the bonus that there is no waste to clean up, no chewed-up bones or messy hairballs, and no vet bills to pay.