Let’s Make a Deal
It has long been known that pets bring us joy, companionship, and love, but the idea that pets can benefit our health—especially as we age—is relatively new. What’s not new is the history of these profound relationships. Roughly 12,000 years ago, humans began encouraging dogs to experience a bold new, interdependent way of life. Or perhaps it was dogs who did the encouraging—with hopeful looks of expectation—until humans acquiesced, and opened their hearts, homes, and pantries to some furry new faces. Either way, through this bond, a lasting era of mutual affection was born. 2,500 years later, cats joined the love-in, and we and our domesticated friends have been enjoying each other’s company ever since.
Aristotle was the first thinker to refer to the human being as “a social animal” and, today, who would argue with his description? We are indeed social animals; we require human-to-human contact to maintain a healthy, balanced, and fulfilled life. But growing old in the modern world is challenging: friends or loved ones move or pass away; physical aging makes it harder to get out and enjoy social activities; and establishing meaningful new friendships becomes more difficult, especially if one is already lonely or depressed. Pets can help disrupt the possible downward spiral for older adults.
Antidotes Wrapped In Fur
Medical research has increasingly shown that our relationships with pets can be almost as valuable to our well-being as our human relationships. “Though not a replacement for social interaction with people,” said Jennifer Wickham, licensed professional counselor at Mayo Clinic Health System, “pets do provide social support and stress reduction.” Studies consistently demonstrate measurable benefits to the physical and mental health of older adults when pets are present. So compelling is this evidence, it is as though pets represent a gentle antidote to many of the symptoms of modern-day aging. As Wickham noted, “Research shows that our desire to connect with our pets can be a valuable asset for those struggling with physical and emotional pain; mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety; and environmental factors, such as loneliness.”
“Research shows that our desire to connect with our pets can be a valuable asset for those struggling with physical and emotional pain; mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety; and environmental factors, such as loneliness.”
—Jennifer Wickham, Licensed Professional Counselor, Mayo Clinic Health System
Care for the Other; Care for the Self
Pet ownership is a serious responsibility and, for many older adults, it is a responsibility that adds a greater sense of purpose to their lives. Caring for a pet—particularly a dog—can create a healthy structure in a pet owner’s daily schedule: dogs must go outside or take a walk multiple times a day; cats need to be fed and have their litter box changed regularly. These needs must be met, but in meeting them, the giver becomes a recipient. Commitments inspire routines, and routines are critical for older adults who might not otherwise see the need to get out of bed. Exercising a dog is a healthy habit for the pet owner and animal, alike, and caring for others can further translate into caring for oneself: “When Tabitha wants her cat food in the morning, that’s when I take my statins and water pill.”
Scratching the Ears of Mindfulness
Our pets fully live in the present moment. They have no capacity to dwell on the past or worry about the future. In humans, psychiatrists describe adherence to this present-oriented mindset as “mindfulness.” While it may not be possible (or desirable) for the average person to constantly live in the moment—being around animals who naturally live this way has been shown to reduce stress, improve moods, lower blood pressure, stir lost memories, lower cholesterol, and lower sitting heart rates in humans. As an example, the sound a cat makes when it purrs (a behavior of pure mindfulness) has been shown to literally decrease symptoms of dyspnea (shortness of breath), reduce bodily swelling, and even promote healing in soft tissue and bones.
Dogs vs. Cats for Older Adults: A Fair Reckoning
There are exceptions to every rule, but if deciding between a cat or a dog, the wise older adult would consider these general guidelines:
Space: Dogs need much more room than cats. Apartment living is not ideal for larger dogs.
Expense: Per year, dogs cost between $300 and $800 more to care for than cats.
Protection: Cats offer no protection against unwanted intruders; dogs are highly territorial.
Energy: Dogs require a lot more physical work from their owners than cats. They need frequent, outdoor walks. Cats need playtime to stay healthy, but 30 minutes a day will suffice.
Health care: Dogs can be trained to detect diseases, slight changes in hormone levels, and even the presence of COVID-19. Cats, not so much.
Affection: According to a study carried out by the BBC, dogs are “five times” more affectionate than cats. Duly noted, but cats still love a comfy lap.
That’s No Dog; That’s My Best Friend
Ultimately, for older adults suffering from loneliness or social isolation, pets are more than companions; they are true friends. Seniors will often spend more time with their pets than with their relatives or friends—and that togetherness almost always leads to deep, abiding bonds. Perhaps this is why the vast majority of older adult communities in the United States permit pets; it is now viewed as a critical part of staying healthy and engaged in later life. As Wickham summarized her feeling about the many advantages pets provide, “Their unconditional love for us bestows many wellness benefits. If you own a pet, take good care of them, because they take care of you.”
Giving You Paws
If you or a loved one could benefit from community programs or resources available to older adults that can make pet ownership more affordable, the Chaver fund—which is administered by Jewish Family Service and is supported by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati—is available to help. Please reach out to AgeWell Cincinnati to find out more about this resource. The experts at AgeWell Cincinnati can connect you to 68 services through one number: 513-766-3333.