Whether your senior loved one already has a pet, or is interested in adopting one, a pet can be a positive presence in a senior’s life because they offer companionship and provide many health benefits.
Some of the health benefits senior pet owners experience include:
The benefits of pets don’t stop there, they also include mental health benefits such as:
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.
Pets can also provide mental stimulation. Reading about the pet’s breed and/or needs, making sure the pet’s needs are met, engaging in play with the pet, etc. All of these activities are beneficial to seniors’ mental health and also serve as mental activities that can fight cognitive decline.
The Center 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 or even surpass it.
Playing fetch with a dog at home and entertaining a cat with a laser pointer may not be a source of physical activity for the senior owner, but it is a source of entertainment, amusement, and enjoyment. Providing for a pet can also help a senior feel like they continue to have a purpose in their life.
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.
All in all, pets can do wonders for seniors’ health if they want a pet, and are capable of caring for their pet.
Since every individual is unique, and every process of aging is unique, always consult your loved one and their doctor before making a drastic change to their lifestyle.
Choosing a Pet
There are 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 low-energy 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.
6. 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.
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.
Next week on the blog we’ll dive deeper into the potential cons of pet ownership for seniors.