Embracing your pet's senior years?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • The results of a survey of 2,000 adults aged 50 to 80 suggest that pets help people stay well as they age
  • Those surveyed reported their pets helped them enjoy life, reduced stress, gave them a sense of purpose and helped them stay physically active
  • Drawbacks to pet ownership for seniors include difficulties traveling, financial strains, and the potential for falls and other injuries
  • Even considering the drawbacks, it seems pet ownership may be especially beneficial for older adults — an age group for which social isolation and loneliness is commonplace

According to a recent issue of Time, based on new data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy, people who hope to stay well as they age should consider adopting a pet.1

Animal companions help older adults enjoy life and feel loved

The survey polled about 2,000 U.S. adults aged 50 to 80, 55% of whom owned at least one pet.2 Dogs were the most common pet, followed by cats and smaller animals (e.g., hamsters and birds). Regardless of what type of pet was in the home, the vast majority of those surveyed reported that their animal companions improved their physical and mental health:

  • 90% said their pets helped them enjoy life and feel loved
  • 80% reported that their pets reduced stress
  • 75% said their animal friends provided a sense of purpose
  • 64% (including 78% of dog owners) said their pets encouraged them to stay physically active
  • 60% said their animals helped them cope with physical and emotional health challenges

Potential drawbacks to pet ownership

Some survey-takers reported a few downsides to pet ownership:

  • 54% reported the difficulties or traveling or even leaving the house
  • 18% mentioned financial strains
  • 6% had a fall or other injury involving their pet
  • 15% (including 26% of people in either fair or poor health) said their pet’s health was more important than their own

Pets age much faster than we do, so it’s important to be realistic about the demands of caring for an animal companion as both you and he age. For example, as your dog gets older, he may have trouble seeing or hearing, or require help going up and down stairs.

If you’re having your own challenges with balance, frailty or are fearful of falling, it may be difficult to physically care for a dog (particularly a larger dog) who is having mobility issues. Caring for an aging animal can take an emotional toll as well. In a survey of 600 pet owners, there was greater burden, stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as poorer quality of life, in owners of pets with chronic or terminal disease.3

However, this was true regardless of the person’s age, and while it’s difficult to face end-of-life issues with your pet, most people agree it’s a sacrifice they’ll gladly make in exchange for the years of happiness their animal companion offers them.

It’s also important to put a plan in place to provide care for your pet in the event you become unable to. Even given the drawbacks, the National Poll on Healthy Aging results suggest that being a pet parent may be especially important for older adults — an age group coping with an unprecedented level of social isolation and loneliness.

Senior pets for senior adults, and options for people who can’t make a full-time commitment to a pet

If you’re an older adult, as long as your health, finances and living situation allow it, the benefits of pet ownership tend to far outweigh the drawbacks. It’s worth noting that some senior centers and retirement communities are also acknowledging this and allow residents to move in with pets.

Many animal shelters also allow seniors to adopt pets at a reduced cost, and some also have “seniors for seniors” programs that specialize in matching older animals with older humans. One such program exists at Helping Paws Animal Shelter in Woodstock, Illinois:

“Our Senior to Senior adoption program is all about senior citizens rediscovering the joys of having a cat or dog in their lives. The program helps place senior cats and dogs, who are 7 years of age and older, with senior citizens who are 65 years of age or older. The adoption fee is waived for any approved senior citizen adopting a senior pet.”4

If you’d love to have a pet in your life but feel the commitment of pet ownership may be overwhelming, you might want to consider alternatives such as fostering an animal, volunteering to walk a neighbor’s dog or helping out at an animal shelter. If you love animals, spending time in their presence, even temporarily, is likely to offer many of the same benefits of pet ownership without as much responsibility — and this is something you can take advantage of at any age.