Pets: A Fountain of Youth?

by Mary Jane Checchi

Cat eating from an open tinI'm concerned about my mother," said Melinda. Over the telephone, the anxiety in my friend's voice matched her words. Her father had died three months ago. It was not surprising that , after some fifty years of marriage, her mother was suffering through this grievous loss.

"She's been very gracious about it, " Melinda continued. "But she says that she would rather be alone, just her and her cats. She's asked us not to visit for a while." Since their father's death, Melinda or one of her sisters had been spending weekends at their mother's home.

In a 1995 article, Karen Allen, PhD, reported on extensive interviews with recently widowed women. Each of them owned a dog, and each of them said that, while she appreciated the consolation of family and friends, she preferred being alone with the dog in the months after her husband's death. Their dogs provided empathy, physical contact, and attentiveness. But the women also indicated that "with the dog, no social pretenses were necessary, and no one was judging her ability to 'bear up'" (Vol. 13, No. 3, 1995/InterActions)

I shared Allen's findings with Melinda. It seemed that, at the moment, her mother was finding it less stressful to be comforted by her pets than by family.

Just about anyone who has owned and loved a companion animal knows that their presence can provide immense comfort during times of disappointment or grief. As one grows older, the occasions for grief can mount: the death of a beloved spouse, of friends and relatives; the loss of a well-lived-in home and familiar surroundings, of physical abilities and strength, of the opportunity to do meaningful work.

Pets provide much more than comfort. The physiological, social, and psychological benefits of pet ownership have been amply documented and are the subject of ongoing research at medical and veterinary schools around the world. Results have been published in journals such as the Harvard Health Letter, Science, American Journal of Cardiology, Public Health Reports, Mental Hygiene, Gerontologist, Anthrozoos. Here are some of the facts that we already know about the benefits of companion animals:

  • Pets provide companionship, affection, and fun. For people with a limited human support system, these attributes are particularly important.
  • A pet needs care, and this allows people to use their abilities and to feel needed and useful.
  • Pets counter depression and loneliness, and can serve as a social bridge to other people.
  • Pets promote physical activity, from dog walking and grooming to playing with a cat, rabbit, or other type of small pet.
  • Pets help satisfy the need to touch and be touched by other living beings.
  • The presence of pets has been shown to lower blood pressure and help people relax, to increase longevity for people who have had heart attacks, and to reduce the number of visits to a doctor by elderly patients.
  • Pets help to ease loss. An older person whose spouse has died is less likely to experience deterioration in health if he or she is attached to a pet.

All of these factors have special relevance and importance in the life of a senior citizen. Seniors are more likely to be socially isolated and less physically active than other demographic groups, and to suffer more medical problems. Yet, despite the benefits that pets can confer on them, seniors are less likely to own a pet than any other group in our society.

The reasons for this are varied, and include: reduced income; living in a smaller home or a rental unit that bans pets; physical disability or health problems; fear of injury (being knocked down by, or tripping over, a pet); fear of exposure to danger (walking a dog after dark); difficulty in transporting a pet to a veterinarian; desire to travel and inconvenience of arranging pet care during owner's absence; concern about providing adequate care.

I am not alone in believing that many people over the age of sixty-five who do not now own a companion animal could do so, and that they would enjoy and benefit from the experience and make good, caring, owners. Today, many pet care facilities and services are available that can help seniors to bridge the gap between liking companion animals, and actually owning one. These include:

  • Trainers, groomers, and veterinarians who make house calls
  • Kennels that pick up and return pets
  • Doggie day-care centers, pet-sitting an dog-walking services
  • Catalog and on-line companies that deliver pet food and supplies to the home
  • The large and growing number of hotels and motels that allow pets, and the directories that supply this information

Seniors may be unaware of what I sometimes call "new Millennium Pets" -- although in fact they are not so new. Seniors who are unable to confidently walk a dog, and don't like cats, have many other options. Birds, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, fancy mice and fancy rats can provide wonderful companionship and all the benefits of owning a more traditional pet.

Of course, not every senior can or should have a pet. The decision to get a pet, and what type of pet to get, should be made carefully and thoughtfully, after taking into account the animal's needs and the individual's resources, preferences, and lifestyle. Health or legal issues -- such as allergies or a lease that prohibits pets -- could rule out some or most types of animals. (Even in these situations, an aquarium of fish might be possible, and provide an entertaining hobby.) The cost of care -- food, supplies, veterinary needs, grooming, training or kenneling -- may rule out a dog or a cat, but may allow for a bird or small mammal. Those who do not want to make a twenty year commitment to care for a cat, or a ten or fifteen year commitment to a dog, could consider adopting a mature cat or dog or a small mammal with a shorter projected lifespan.

Pets are not a cure-all, nor a substitute for human relationships. But the right pet is a prescription for fun, friendship, activity and better health.