Taking on the stewardship of a furry friend can be a big responsibility and a great joy, especially for elderly pet parents. There are both benefits and challenges to caring for an animal at any age, but older adults need to think carefully about taking this kind of commitment on.
Let’s unleash some pros and cons to consider when contemplating getting a pet when you’re over 65.
Human-pet interaction is a special relationship that can be particularly beneficial for an older person. Anecdotal and scientific research indicate that the unconditional love and companionship of a pet can significantly enhance one’s quality of life. There’s a reason why animal therapy is a thing.
Research shows that senior pet owners have higher levels of physical activity than those who don’t, and this can lead to better overall health. For example, seniors with a dog are obliged to take a walk every day, so both the human and the hound get a necessary dose of daily exercise.
Pets may also help promote lower blood pressure. Compared to seniors who don’t have pets, those who share their space with an animal often have lower blood pressure. Coming into physical contact or petting a dog or cat can have a relaxing effect. Listening to birdsong or watching an aquarium can have a similar calming reaction. As lower blood pressure is linked to reducing the chance of developing heart disease, a pet could be considered a prescription for a healthier heart.
As the pet requires a set routine of feeding, playing, walking etc., the older adult also has a routine to give their day structure. Pets can help fend off feelings of loneliness and isolation that often plagues seniors living alone. The presence of a pet can lift your spirits and lighten your mood. Anyone with a pet knows that these furry, feathered or finned pals provide social interaction and emotional support throughout the day. Just stroking them, feeding them and talking to them can be uplifting and bring a smile to your face.
For seniors with mild cognitive decline or early stages of dementia, a pet can be a great reminder that the present is all we really have. Animals don’t ruminate on the past or stress about the future. They’re all about the here and now, and we can all learn a lesson from that.
Recent research suggests that pet therapy after surgery might decrease the need for pain medication when recouping. Whether it’s morning arthritis stiffness or discomfort following a medical procedure, being around a loving pet may help you loosen up and relax enough to ease the pain.
Service animals, in particular, can be a great assistant for elderly people. For example, seniors with hearing issues can depend on a pet to inform them when the doorbell or phone rings, or when an alarm sounds.
Caring for another being gives you a meaningful sense of purpose that can be personally fulfilling. Having a pet gives some seniors something to talk about, and can be a gateway to making new friends at the park or bonding with a caregiver.
Not all studies show that pet ownership is a benefit to seniors. One concern for this age group is that older adults tend to be less mobile and might have balance issues, which makes having a pet underfoot, along with their various toys, bowls and beds etc., a potential tripping hazard.
Some of the daily responsibilities of pet parenting might become difficult if there is physical or cognitive decline. Will you be able to open that can of cat food or clean the litter box with arthritic hands? Will you be able to take Fido for a walk with that bad hip? Will you remember to feed the bird or fish on time? These are important questions to consider once you reach a certain age and stage.
Seniors on a pension might not be wise to take on pet ownership. If money is tight, buying pet food, litter, toys, cages, paying for vet bills and the like will be taking away money that should be spent on the senior’s personal needs.
Older adults with health issues must find back-up care before taking on the responsibility of a pet. You never know when doctors visits, hospital stays, injuries or illness will make you unable to care for your pet properly, temporarily or long term. An adult child, a neighbor, a pet service, a shelter – someone has to be willing to take on your little buddy if you are unable to.
If you’re getting to the age where moving into a assisted living facility or nursing home is on the near horizon, you might have to think about re-homing your beloved pet at that point (unless, of course, the facility allows pets). And, to be blunt, you never know how much time you have left in life, so you’ll need to plan for that inevitability if you adopt a pet who most likely will outlive you.
There may also be concerns about getting infectious diseases, scratches, bites or other injuries from the pet, although seniors in good health are not necessarily at any greater risk for that than people of other ages.
What pets should you consider?
So you’ve weighed the pros and cons of pet ownership and have decided to go for it. What kind of pet should you get?
Dogs and cats are what spring to mind for most people. Cats are pretty easy going, low maintenance pets. They’ll come to you when they want affection, but otherwise are okay spending time on their own. In terms of canines, most experts suggest low-energy dogs for seniors. Breeds like pekingese, pugs, basset hounds, chow chows and cavalier King Charles spaniels demand less exercise than higher energy breeds.
However, don’t discount rabbits, birds, reptiles and fish, as they can be a good choice for some seniors too.
How about a robotic pup? It may sound kind of out there, but these electronic Fidos can ease anxiety and reduce loneliness much like a living, breathing pet. They don’t need to be taken on walks, there’s no great consequence if you forget to feed them, and there’s no threat of injury from a bite. Elderly folks with dementia or mobility issues who want some pet benefits without all the responsibility might do well with a RoboPet like this.