Sixty-eight percent of American households include pets. Although seniors might worry about the responsibility of caring for another being, pet ownership is more than just a chance to bond with a beloved animal. Pets offer real health benefits, and there are many ways for seniors to own pets.
Pet Ownership Options for Seniors
Pet ownership is a serious commitment. Some seniors worry about the relatively long life of dogs and pets. What will happen to their beloved pet if they are no longer able to provide care? What if they have to move?
There are lots of options for seniors who want to own pets. You could always adopt a puppy or kitten, but some less well-known options offer just as many benefits and fewer risks:
- Consider becoming a pet foster home. You’ll get all of the benefits of pet ownership, but with support from the fostering agency. You’ll also help keep a pet safe until a forever home becomes available.
- Adopt an old or sick pet. Many shelters help cover medical expenses for older or ailing animals. You’ll provide a home to a pet who otherwise might have gone without, and you won’t have to worry about your pet outliving you.
- Consider a nontraditional pet. These animals require less constant stimulation, but can still be a source of much joy. Fish are fun to watch, and building their aquarium is stimulating and interesting. Reptiles bond surprisingly well with their caregivers. Rodents can become just as attached as dogs and cats, and may even learn some tricks. These pets don’t live as long as dogs or cats and aren’t as expensive to own.
Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
Living with animals can improve your health and may improve your family members’ health, too.
Better heart health
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), research consistently shows that pets may improve heart and blood vessel health. Pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure, better cholesterol, and decreased triglyceride levels. These health improvements can boost overall quality of life while reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
If you’re worried about how a pet might affect your grandchild’s health, there’s good news: Children who are raised with pets or who spend a lot of time with them may have a lower risk of allergies. The theory here is that children pick up tiny microbes from pets. These small exposures boost the child’s immune system and reduce the risk of future allergies.
Ever wondered why children seem to get more allergies than they once did? The culprit might be houses that are too clean. Disinfectants and antibacterial solutions rob homes of beneficial microbes. Over time, this can weaken immune systems, too. Pets restore balance, potentially bringing beneficial bacteria back into the house. This can boost immunity—especially for young children.
Better pain management
If you live with chronic pain, it’s easy to feel frustrated by how few treatment options are available. One of the simplest and most effective options might be to get a pet. Pets may help with chronic pain by supporting people to better manage anxiety. Pet ownership can also encourage people to adopt healthy pain management strategies, such as exercising and walking more.
Assistance with medical conditions
Pets can learn to help their owners with a wide range of medical conditions. Some dogs are able to detect signs of an impending seizure. Others can tell when their owner’s blood glucose has changed, and can react accordingly. Pets can also be trained to help with daily tasks such as opening cabinets or alerting when the door is open. And for people with vision impairments, a pet can make navigating the world safer and less isolating.
Mental Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
Though often treated as distinct entities, mental health and physical health are inextricably linked. Poor mental health predicts a host of physical health problems. New research even suggests that loneliness may be a bigger health threat than obesity or smoking. Pet ownership offers numerous mental health benefits:
Especially if you live alone, it’s easy to feel isolated. Pets help you feel less lonely by offering companionship. Pets can also make it easier to socialize with others, and even serve as an icebreaker in conversation, which means less loneliness. Loneliness increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, immune issues, and numerous other health problems. So combating loneliness can also improve overall health.
Simply spending time with an animal can help alleviate anxiety. Relationships with animals change the body’s chemistry, encouraging the release of oxytocin and other chemicals that support positive feelings and alleviate stress.
Help with depression
Depression can feel miserable. It also erodes health and can even cause you to die younger. No one deserves to spend their retirement depressed, and pet ownership can help fight feelings of depression. Pets support positive emotions, but they also encourage healthy decisions—such as exercise and socialization—that can prevent depression.
Other Reasons to Consider Owning a Pet
The benefits of pet ownership extend well beyond health. Pet ownership can also improve your overall quality of life. Consider the following benefits:
Greater security at home
No matter where you live, you may worry about crime. Frightening reports of break-ins are everywhere, and no place is truly crime-free. For seniors who live alone, the fear of a break-in can be very real, especially if you have a mobility impairment that would undermine your ability to escape or call for help.
A pet can help you feel safer at home. Interviews with people who used to break into homes suggest that barking dogs (regardless of size or disposition) are a major deterrent. You’ll rest easy knowing that your dog will hear an intruder long before you do, giving you a chance to react and get to safety.
More socialization opportunities
Pets are the great unifier. People who have nothing else in common can spend hours telling stories about their dogs. Political enemies can become fast friends looking at cat memes or swapping dog training battle stories. When you get a pet, you join a club of sorts. When you’re out and about with your pet, it’s much easier to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Pet play dates are very real, too. If your dog strikes up a friendship with another dog, you may become fast friends with the owner.
A built-in buddy
Let’s face it: trying new things can be difficult. A willingness to get outside of your comfort zone is also a powerful antidote to boredom and depression. Pets help bridge the gap. It’s easier to chat up a stranger at the park with a dog in tow. And talking to someone about a mutual interest in cats, reptiles, or birds can ease the tension that often comes with introductions.
If you’re shy around strangers, you may feel less overwhelmed when you know that your charming dog will be there to win them over. So teach your pet good manners and then start taking them out into the world. You might be surprised by the ways they inspire you to try new things and meet new people.
Senior Pet Ownership Tips
A pet is a new member of your family, but they’re not a cure-all. So it’s important to choose your pet wisely. A few simple questions can help you make the right decision:
- Do I like animals, or am I only interested in the health benefits?
- What do I want out of a pet? What role do I hope a pet will fill?
- How much time do I have for my pet?
- Do I have a plan for my pet if something happens to me?
- Can I afford a trainer, veterinarian, and other expenses?
- What will I do if there is a problem, such as a cat who sprays or a dog with separation anxiety?
- What pet ownership options best fit my values? Many seniors find a great sense of purpose in adopting an older or unwanted animal.
- Will I need help to care for my pet? What resources are available in my area?
- Will my pet need to be alone for long stretches of time?
- What do my loved ones think? If people who know you express concerns about pet ownership, listen to those concerns. They may have thought of something you have not considered.
Be honest with yourself about your needs, and take time to evaluate your options. Then go get your new best friend!
For more advice on living a better and more fulfilling life no matter your age, download our free e-book, Senior Living Demystified.