Owning a pet gets even better with age.
While reports on the health benefits of caring for a dog, cat or other critter abound, a new Mayo Clinic study suggests that dogs are a heart’s best friend.
Researchers studied just under 1,800 people between the ages of 25 to 64 who had healthy hearts, almost half of which (42%) owned a dog. And those with canine companions were more likely to practice heart-healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising, eating well and having ideal blood sugar levels than those without a dog. (However, they also found dog owners were more likely to smoke, which is a decidedly risky habit.) They had better cardiovascular health over all, however, largely stemming from the extra exercise from walking and caring for a dog.
This comes on the heels of a recent survey that has suggested that aging adults in particular can benefit from an animal companion.
The National Poll on Healthy Aging surveyed 2,051 adults aged 50 to 80 last fall, more than half of whom reported owning a pet. And 88% said that their pets helped them enjoy life, and 86% said their pets made them feel loved. The poll sponsored by the AARP and the University of Michigan also reported that 79% of senior pet parents said that their four-legged (or feathered, or finned) friends reduced stress.
Considering that more than 40% of seniors experience loneliness on a regular basis (which research has associated with worse health including poor sleep, higher stress and more inflammation), encouraging seniors to adopt pets, or granting more access to therapy animals, could improve their well-being. In fact, among the surveyed seniors who lived alone and/or reported fair or poor physical health, 72% said their pets helped them cope with physical or emotional symptoms.
Pets fetch more than just mental health benefits, however. The poll also found that:
Pets ease pain. Two in five seniors who live alone (43%) and 46% of those in fair or poor physical health reported that their pets help take their mind off pain. Indeed, a 2012 study in Pain Magazine found that therapy dogs provided “significant reduction in pain and emotional distress for chronic pain patients.” After all, pet owners who look into a dog’s eyes for at least five minutes get a boost of the feel-good oxytocin hormone in the brain, the journal Science reported.
Pets help seniors stick to a routine. More than half (62%) of the surveyed seniors said that caring for their critters helped them keep a routine, and 73% said their pets provided a sense of purpose. Structuring your days becomes even more important after you retire, because the risk of depression rises when a person has no sense of purpose. And without anything meaningful to do, a person’s cognitive abilities can also decline. So staying on top of feeding, walking, grooming and playing with a pet can help fill those empty hours and keep the mind sharp.
Pets make people more sociable. As noted above, loneliness can be dire; isolation raises the risk of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%. An analysis of 70 studies featuring 3.4 million people found that people suffering social isolation had a 30% greater risk of dying in the next seven years. But 65% of the aging pet owners in the new survey claimed that their animals connected them with other people.
Pets keep aging adults active. Seniors age 65 and older should get at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking) every week, or about 30 minutes on most days of the week. And 64% of overall pet owners, and 78% among dog owners in particular, said their pet helped them to be more physically active. This supports a 2017 study in The Gerontologist that found dog walking in older adults was associated with more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise, as well as lower BMI and fewer doctor visits.
But one shouldn’t adopt a golden retriever for their golden years without considering how a pet will affect their lifestyle and their finances. Some pet factors that might give older adults reason to paws include:
Pets can be physically demanding. That extra exercise a person gets from walking a dog or playing with their pet also comes with some risks. A recent JAMA study reported that bone fractures related to seniors walking their dogs more than doubled between 2004 and 2017 in patients 65 and older; from 1,671 cases in 2004 to 4,396 in 2017. And 6% of seniors in the National Poll on Healthy Aging reported that their pets caused them to fall or otherwise injure themselves. So seniors with limited mobility may want to adopt a more chill and low-maintenance pet, like a cat, bird or fish, over a large dog with boundless energy that needs to be walked a few times a day.
Pets get expensive. It takes a lot of scratch to care for a dog or a cat; Rover.com reports that canines cost their owners $153 a month on average, adding up to $1,836 a year. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) puts the average annual cost of care at $875 for a large dog, $670 for a cat, $200 for a small bird and $35 for a fish (not including the cost of setting up an aquarium.) That can be a stretch on a fixed income, so The Humane Society lists state and national resources for pet owners who have trouble affording their pets.
Pets can spread disease. Before bringing home any pet, make sure it’s examined by a veterinarian to ensure it’s healthy. Pets can carry certain bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that could be dangerous for older adults with compromised immune systems. For example, about 40% of cats carry the bacteria that causes “cat scratch disease,” which can present as mildly infected scratches, but can also cause swollen lymph nodes and fever. Pet owners should always wash their hands with soap and running water anytime they come into contact with the dog or cat’s saliva or stool.
Pets may outlive their aging owners. Domesticated dogs live 10 to 12 years on average, and cats live 10 to 14 years, so there is the sad possibility that an older adult who gets a younger animal may die before their pet does. Or the pet owner could become hospitalized, or spend time in a short-term rehabilitation center, or eventually have to move to a long-term community or assisted living facility. So it’s important to include pets in estate planning, particularly in naming a caretaker for the pet, and possibly setting up a pet trust to cover the animal’s care.
The bottom line: There are many physical and emotional health benefits to investing in a pet, but animals also require a lot of time and energy. The key is finding the perfect match — which may be an aging dog or cat, which are often house-trained and don’t require as much walking as puppies and kittens. A number of adoption programs teaming older adults with older pets are popping up across the country, including the PAWS Seniors for Seniors adoption program in Washington state; Animal League’s Seniors For Seniors in New York; and Pets for Seniors in Illinois.
Or if owning a pet is too physically demanding or expensive, pet therapy services that make house calls are also springing up, including the volunteer-run Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Therapy Dogs International that will bring a trained service dog for 30-minute and hourlong sessions.
This article was originally published in April 2019, and has been updated with the Mayo Clinic report.