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Woof, woof, meow!

By Carol Nelson

Our animal friends have helped a lot of us get through quarantine and made difficult times easier. In fact, pets have proven to be good for our overall health.

Surveys show that approximately 35 per cent of Canadian households have a dog, while 38 per cent have a cat. The reasons for this outpouring of affection for our fuzzy friends are also reasons that pets can actually improve their owner’s outlook on life, which can help their caregivers emotionally as well, especially for older adults who may be lonely or depressed.

Medical studies prove that the health benefits of pet ownership are real and lasting. Here are some of the benefits:

Improvement in mental health. A 2020 study shows that pets slow the impact of dementia, elevate moods and decrease depression in seniors because they provide companionship, a source of entertainment and a sense of purpose. Socialization with a pet also lowers stress hormones and increases stabilizing hormones like serotonin.

Increase in heart health. Because pets require both physical and emotional care, seniors who own a pet tend to be more active. This results in a reduction in cardiovascular disease.

Better quality of life. When an older adult has an animal to keep healthy, they tend to keep themselves healthier in order to care for their pet. Reports have shown that those with pets require fewer doctor visits, have a lower body mass and voluntarily exercise more often.

A longer lifespan. Another report found people who own dogs live 24 per cent longer than those who do not. As mentioned above, owning a dog requires seniors to move around more, which decreases disease, but the study also suggests that simply petting a dog or cat can reduce stress and improve blood pressure.

Pets ease pain. A 2012 study in Pain Magazine found that pets provide a reduction in pain and emotional distress for chronic pain patients. The study also noted that dogs significantly improve emotional distress and feelings of well-being in family and friends who accompany patients.

Security. While statistics have shown for years that burglars will resist a home with a barking dog, pets also offer a sense of emotional security.  Caregivers should note, however, that picking a pet is not without challenge. Caregivers should assess how much help their older adult can provide in caring for the pet, how to match the animal’s temperament with their elder’s personality and what aged pet is best suited for the household.

Other factors to consider are finances and back-up plans. Pet care can be expensive and many seniors and their caregivers are on fixed budgets. Considering who will be able to take care of the pet should you both have to go to the hospital or spend time at a rehabilitation center is an important factor to review before adopting an animal.

In some cases, a pet can create additional work for the caregiver, but it can also provide the same benefits to you as it does for your loved one. By assisting the senior with the pet, the caregiver also experiences the health benefits of pet ownership.

Finally, caregivers need to consider where to adopt or purchase a pet for their loved one. Municipal and not-for-profit animal rescue shelters top the list. Some of these shelters have free or reduced-price programs for seniors looking to adopt that include the fees for spaying or neutering the pet. Be sure and look into whether your local facilities offer this option. Pets can also be purchased at local pet stores, but the cost of spaying or neutering the animal is additional and may not fit the budget.

While there are many challenges to think about when considering adopting a pet for an elder, there is overwhelming evidence that pets help seniors lead longer, healthier and happier lives.

Carol Nelson​, RN, BSN, MBA, is a Healthcare Solutions​ Manager with ​more than 35 years of experience ​in home care, ​​hospice​ and palliative care and ​assisted ​living​ management.

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