People and Pets: The Healthy Aging Connection
University of Michigan’s Dr. Preeti Malani reports that her family adopted a “pandemic puppy” a few months ago—the first pet she, her husband and their high schooler have ever owned. The addition has required a lot of time and attention from Dr. Malani and her husband, who also is a doctor. “But on the other hand, walking, playing and cuddling with the dog has been a welcome distraction during troubling times,” she reports.
Dr. Malani, who is chief health officer of the Infectious Diseases and Geriatric Medicine division at the University of Michigan, recently conducted a poll that showed children aren’t the only ones benefiting from animal companionship at this time. During the long quarantine, 10% of all people between the ages of 50 and 80 also added a pet to their household. These pets have helped ward off loneliness and a deficit of physical contact. Fortunately, we needn’t practice social distancing from our pets.
Dr. Malani and many other experts report that caring for and playing with pets can lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides in our body, as well as boost our immune system. These and other benefits happen because:
Pets can motivate us to exercise. If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably had days when you felt like spending the day on the couch—but your pooch had other ideas! The Gerontological Society of America reports that older adults who regularly walk a dog are much more likely to get the recommended amount of physical activity, and they’re also at lower risk of age-related disabilities.
Pets spark social interaction. Pets not only keep us company, but also provide a context for socializing with others. Even in normal times, it can be harder for older adults to make contact with other people. But have you noticed that moving through the world with a dog at the end of a leash seems to provide a green light for people to talk to each other? Even sitting with your cat on the front porch can open a conversation with neighbors and passersby. And in those family video calls this year, if his poodle crashes the call, Grandpa is more likely to get attention from the grandkids!
Caring for an animal offers emotional benefits. Many pets provide unconditional love, as well as the opportunity to touch a warm, living creature, such as our cat, dog, bunny or hamster. And studies show we experience positive feelings even when caring for a less cuddly critter, such as a fish, snake, turtle or even tarantula. Keeping those animals safe and healthy boosts our sense of purpose—something that can be in short supply during our later years.
Pets are great stress busters. Whether it’s stroking a cat’s soft fur and enjoying it purr, playing catch with a dog or watching fish swim in an aquarium, spending time with animals can reduce stress and anxiety. “The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion and awareness,” says Dr. Ann Berger of the National Institutes of Health. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately.” A 2021 study from Washington State University even found that petting a dog for 10 minutes lowers levels of stress hormones in the body.
Here are a few caveats older adults should consider before adding an animal companion to the home:
The risk of falls. While the exercise and mood boost we get from pets can lower our overall risk of falling, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1% of all fall injuries are caused by pets. A senior might be pulled off balance while walking a dog on a leash, or stumble over a cat in the home. An enthusiastic dog can knock a frail elder off their feet. Dogs should be well trained so they don’t jump on their owners or pull them off balance by the leash. To avoid tripping over dogs and cats, equip them with a belled collar. And keep pet toys and food dishes out of the way.
Pet-borne infections. Humans can catch a number of diseases from pets, including salmonella, E. coli, roundworms and tick-borne infections. “Pets do so much good for people in terms of mental, physical and emotional health,” said Ohio State University professor Jason Stull. “But at the same time, they can transmit diseases to us. Physicians, veterinarians and the public have to work together to make sure the benefits outweigh the risks.” Wash hands after contact with a pet, and wear protective gloves while picking up dog poop or cleaning the litter box, aquarium or birdcage. Animals should be under regular veterinary care and receive the recommended immunizations. People with a compromised immune system and those who are pregnant should ask their doctor about animal contact that might be unsafe.
Emergency preparation for pets. As you create an emergency preparation plan, don’t forget your pets. Federal Emergency Management Agency rescue personnel say that after hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, vulnerable senior survivors often refuse to evacuate because they don’t want to leave beloved pets behind. Plan in advance where you would be able to go with your pet if an emergency were to strike. This might be a pet-friendly shelter, pet boarding facility, or the home of a friend who lives out of harm’s way. The CDC offers more information to use as you make your plan.
Disrupted sleep. Mayo Clinic researchers found that 10% of people who seek help for sleep disorders reported that their cats, dogs, birds and other pets were part of the problem. These critters kept their owners awake by jumping onto the bed, snoring and making other noises, wandering around, and, of course, by needing to “go out.” The news wasn’t all bad: Many pet owners said that having their pet in the house provides a sense of security and helps them sleep better. The Mayo Clinic researchers suggest that it’s probably OK to have your pet in your bedroom—but not in your bed! “Don’t let your canines crawl under the covers with you,” they advise. “Go ahead, turn your sheepdog into a sleep dog. Just make sure they are relegated to their own bark-o-lounger, rather than your bed.”
Driving hazards. Most of us know not to text while driving. Even talking on a hands-free phone or eating while we’re behind the wheel can cause dangerous inattention. But what if we’re taking our dog, or maybe our cat, out for a spin? A recent University of Alabama study found that driving with a pet loose in the car raises the risk of accidents—and older drivers are at particularly high risk of a crash when distracted by an animal passenger. Keep pets leashed in the car, and don’t let them walk around or sit in your lap.
Emotional distress when conditions change. Sometimes changes in an older adult’s situation make it impossible for them to keep a beloved animal companion. They might be moving to a senior living community or other place where pets are not allowed. Physical limitations also might make it hard to care for a pet. Family or neighbors might be able to help. Professional in-home caregivers also can assist with pet care. But seniors should consider well in advance what they would do if they could no longer care for a pet. Experts suggest that before an older adult brings a pet into their life, they should create an “animal advance directive,” setting a rehoming plan into place.
Choosing the right pet can lower the risk of health issues, or the heartbreaking need to give up a pet. Older adults should ask these questions as they consider a particular pet:
- How long will this pet likely live?
- How large will the animal be when full-grown?
- How much exercise will the pet need, and will I be able to keep up with that?
- What is veterinary care likely to cost?
- Would I be able to take care of a pet’s medical needs?
- Does my home provide the type of environment and space the pet would need?
- Would the pet cause problems for me or people in my home who have allergies or immune system problems?
- Who could care for my pet if I went to the hospital or on vacation?
This is a lot to consider—but it’s important to do so before adopting a pet. After all, this can become an important relationship in your life, and like other relationships, it deserves tending.