Pets are generally associated with love and happiness, bringing delight to their owners and those who are privy to their goofy antics and loveable snuggles. This is especially true for seniors and a big reason why animals like dogs and cats are used as therapy pets in senior living communities, hospitals, and the like. As PetInsurance.com points out, "Evidence suggests four-legged friends are a real health benefit for elderly people, helping them live longer, healthier and happier lives." Here are just a few of the many ways animals benefit the elderly.
Pets can lower blood pressure and heart rate
There's just something calming about petting a four-legged, furry friend, and there's evidence to prove it: Studies dating back to 1988 have shown a correlation between human-dog interactions, such as talking to and petting a dog, and a lower blood pressure, and the American Heart Association says that owning a pet can help protect you from heart disease.
Lower risk of heart disease linked to other benefits of pet ownership for seniors
There are several reasons for the link between pet ownership or spending time with animals and the lowered risk of heart disease, including the idea that pet owners, particularly dog owners, tend to be more active. After all, dogs need exercise, too, and taking the dog for a daily stroll is good for both the body and the soul.
Cats, too, require regular maintenance, such as grooming, litter box changes, and playtime, all of which contribute to increased activity for the people who care for them. Pet ownership has also been associated with lower stress levels and lower rates of depression. Pets make great listeners, and they're always happy to see you.
Animals reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation
Seniors living alone can experience feelings of loneliness and isolation, which in turn can lead to depression. Animal companions can help to alleviate these feelings by providing constant companionship and even boosting the self-esteem of an elderly person. Pets rely on their owners to provide food, care and love, which gives seniors a sense of purpose as well as a welcome distraction when seniors are feeling down.
What's more, seniors tend to take better care of themselves when they have a four-legged friend relying on them for food and affection, according to the nonprofit organization Pets for the Elderly. Because they want to stay healthy enough to provide the care their beloved pets require, seniors are more likely to be compliant with medications, get daily exercise, and eat healthier.
Visits from furry friends in senior living communities have tremendous effects on residents
The incredible bond that exists between humans and animals like cats and dogs and the amazing effects these animals can have on sick and elderly individuals has led to animals being used for therapy in hospitals and senior living communities. Many senior living communities have resident pets, such as a cat or dog who roams the community and provides companionship for both staff and residents. Additionally, there are more senior living communities allowing residents to bring their own pets to the community.
But even without these options, many communities take advantage of animal therapy programs, where local animal shelters bring friendly pets for visits with residents. Likewise, there are animal therapy organizations that train dogs (and sometimes cats) and make regular rounds at hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living communities, and similar settings to provide the benefits of animal companionship to patients and residents. Many a miraculous result has been recorded and attributed to the amazing power of animals to bring out the best in people. One such story is revealed by Everyday Health, in which a cat visited a terminal man who had slipped into a coma. Miraculously, upon the cat being placed on his bed, the gentleman awoke from his coma and began to pet the cat.
Is pet ownership the right choice for you or your senior loved ones?
It's clear that humans and animals share an incredible bond. While a pet can have many positive benefits for the elderly, adopting a pet isn't a decision that should be made lightly. Be sure that you or your elderly loved one are able to provide proper care for a pet, and if you do decide to adopt a pet, take care to choose the right pet. Cats don't typically require long walks outdoors, for instance, and some dog breeds are more active than others. If you live in a small home or apartment, a small-breed dog or cat may be a better choice than a large-breed dog. These are all considerations that should be weighed when adopting a pet.
If caring for a pet seems out of reach, consider looking into local animal therapy programs where volunteers bring animals for periodic visits—allowing seniors to reap the benefits of companionship without the demands of caring for a pet of their own.