Old folks are going to the dogs. And cats. Even a few birds.
The benefits of having a pet (or sharing one) are many and well documented through research and anecdotal evidence. Aside from the emotional uplift and companionship which combats loneliness and isolation, it has been found that the interaction with pets can actually lower both blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decrease depression, and even ease the pain of losing a loved one.
Some assisted living communities welcome residents’ pets, if they meet certain criteria. Some provide community pets, too, — often older, gentler shelter rescues with easy-going and affectionate demeanors. Following my mother's injury, we investigated one such center, providentially located just down the street from her home, in walking distance with a good tailwind. We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted in the entry lobby by a calm, friendly mixed-breed senior canine. He welcomed us, sniffed our credentials, and then settled down to nap in a communal parlor, adjacent to the dining area. Smart dog.
I grew up in a cat-loving home, and can't imagine life without one. Shortly after my parents' last cat passed, my father became seriously ill, and my mother gave him her full attention for his few remaining years. A daughter-in-law's and one grandchild's strong allergies to cats influenced her as well, and Mom gave up feline companionship. She misses it, but says she compensates with her flower gardening. I am always after her to get a dander-free Siberian Forest Cat, like ours, but she's made up her 94-year-old mind and I have to respect her decision, reluctantly.
The Great Debate
Cats Are Better Than Dogs!
“Cats are helpful for companionship without affecting the limited mobility some of the seniors have. We are finding that some of the housing that seniors are in, like apartments and condos, are more open to cats than dogs,” says Ms. Kurowski, the Pets for the Elderly Foundation general manager. “Cats are easy to hold on your lap and so many people, especially those who live alone, need the touch and cuddling provided by cats who need to be cuddled.”
Pets for the Elderly Foundation provides a useful link to this Cat Channel article:
Dogs Are Better Than Cats!
These Dog Channel articles make the case for canines:
All Creatures Great and Small
In search of a neutral party, to avoid the age-old, insoluble conflict above, I googled "best pets for seniors" and was directed to an Australian animal hospital in Warriewood, New South Wales. Pittwater Animal Hospital offers this helpful "Fact Sheet - Which Pets Best Suit the Elderly." In addition to felines and canines the Aussies concisely and convincingly make the case for birds, aquarium fish, mice and rats (!), and include an intriguing catch-all category, "Native fauna." I recommend it for those who wish to think out of the (litter) box.
To Own or Not to Own
If you're deciding whether owning a pet may benefit you or your parents, here are some resources that can help you with that decision:
The National Center for Health Research has posted an informative overview of the influence of pets on health:
Pet Partners "is a non-profit organization that brings individuals together who share a common passion - a love of animals and people." They maintain that "people are healthier and happier because companion, service and therapy animals enrich and positively impact their everyday lives" and they strive to "empower individuals with disabilities to maximize their quality of life by providing service animal related information and resources." For 35 years they have "focused on improving human health through positive interactions with therapy, service and companion animals."
Articles and abstracts from the Pet Partners:
The Pets for the Elderly Foundation is another charitable organization. "The Pets for the Elderly Foundation (PFE) is a 501 (c)(3) public charity whose mission is to provide companionship to senior individuals through pet ownership, while saving the lives of companion animals in shelters; animals which might otherwise be destroyed due to lack of appropriate homes, and space limitations."
The website's "research" page provides abstracts of research papers and articles, and links to helpful sites.
Finally, a 2013 web post, "Benefits and Risks of Owning Pets for Older Adults, Seniors, and the Elderly," gives the pros and cons of senior pet ownership in a succinct and well-organized way. There are risks, and it would be irresponsible not to bring them into the discussion.
These organizations are careful to point out that some pets may be inappropriate, due to size, energy levels, rambunctiousness or temperament.
I hasten to add that some humans are not good candidates for animal interaction as well. I will never forget a neighbor of ours in Manhattan back in the 1980s, an elderly lady with a distinct Eastern-European accent. One evening she came to our apartment door in great distress, and ordered us to "stop killing the birds!" She repeated this mysterious injunction over and over, in a piercing voice. I calmed her down as best I could, assuring her we were not slaughtering sparrows or mangling magpies, and asked her to explain her agitation.
She led us into her adjoining apartment, where we heard the annoying but totally benign beeping of an under-powered smoke alarm. I explained the situation, replaced her 9-volt battery and wished her a good evening. I don't think she was convinced of our innocence, or ever forgave us. Just as every pet may not be right for seniors, every senior may not be right for a pet. Woof woof.
Written by Mark L. Chapman