Pet therapy keeps the elderly happier, more active, and healthier in body and mind.
Some researchers believe that pet therapy is stronger than any medication, not only for people going through tough times or in poor health, but also for the elderly. As far as benefits for the mind, pets have been proven to increase mental alertness, build self-esteem, decrease loneliness, and provide a warm and fulfilling relationship.
“Pet ownership for older people can be very beneficial by giving them something to love and care for, as well as a companion in the home, especially if they live alone,” says Dr. Sonny Presnal, director of the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
According to Presnal, the responsibility of caring for a pet can be a healthy situation for most elderly people and can even be the only reason they get up in the morning. It also makes them healthier, because they need to walk the dog – also, another reason to get out of the house even for a while. Presnal adds that there are “many studies that attribute pet ownership to relieving stress, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and bettering mental health.”
One such study of over 5,200 adults by the American Heart Association (AHA) showed that owning a pet may help lower blood pressure, obesity and cholesterol, as well as reduce the risk of heart disease and increase survival among patients. The AHA said that it isn’t clear whether owning a dog actually reduces the risk of heart disease or if it’s just that healthier people are those with pets. What is clear is that dogs help their owners adopt a healthier lifestyle as the dog owners in the study “engaged in more walking and physical activity than non-dog owners, and were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity.”
An article by online health information website WebMD, has also found that living with pets can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, ward off depression, and boost immunity. Moreover, playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine ― nerve transmitters that are known to have pleasurable and calming properties.
Another 20-year study found that people with a cat were 60 percent less likely to die of heart disease than those without; a second study showed lower blood pressure among 240 married couples with pets; and a third indicated that petting a dog lowered blood pressure in hypertensive children.
When choosing a pet, the elderly person must consider their physical and mental limitations. A very large or active dog may lead to falls and injury, while a puppy or kitten may be too high maintenance. Presnal says an older dog or cat that has matured past their “ball of energy” phase can be a perfect companion: “not only does adopting an older pet benefit their owner, but it may save the pet from euthanasia, as often people are not interested in adopting older animals.”
The right pet, he says, can provide an older owner with a sense of purpose, nonjudgmental acceptance, and companionship that both animals and humans need to stay happy, healthy and content.