Pets: A Good Or Bad Idea?

getting-a-petAre pets – dogs and cats— beneficial to elderly people? Some would say ‘Yes’ while others would respond with a resounding ‘No!’

Pets require care and some supervision, which might prove difficult for someone who isn’t very ambulatory. And then there is the ‘falling over the pet’ syndrome, which most pet owners have experienced at one time or another. While it may not be a big deal for younger people, falling is treacherous and potentially fatal for elderly people, who possess fragile bones and can’t rebound from a fall as they could when younger.

According to Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, “A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits. I can’t explain it myself but for years now I’ve see how an instance of having a pet is like an effective drug. It really does help people.”

L. B. G.: I think pets are fine as long as there is someone to help with their care if needed. I do know from experience the right animal is key. However, if the older person has trouble with balance a big animal can cause them to fall easily. Many nursing homes have pets as a way to thwart depression (among the residents) rather than giving them a pill or at least fewer pills.

One of many benefits of pet ownership to the elderly is the animal forces the individual to maintain a routine. You can’t succumb to depression and lie in bed all day if your Heinz 57 needs to go outside and pee and wants fed. Pets prevent loneliness, which is a big issue for the elderly, especially those who have been left along after the death of a long-time spouse or companion.

D.S., age 66: I believe having a pet gives a person the reason to keep going. It helped me to get out and walk after my heart attack and foot surgery. I don’t feel good some days and if weren’t for my little dog I wouldn’t get up.

If the elderly person is still capable of walking his dog, he’s killing two birds with one stone: The individual and the animal get exercise and fresh air and some much-needed social interaction may be involved with other dog walkers and neighbors.

B.E.A. age 58: It depends on the person. A widow or widower who is able bodied but suddenly so lonely they can’t stand it, to them a pet could be literally a life saver. Someone who is used to being productive or caring for others would benefit from having a purpose in life. Cats are great absorbers of negative energy. Dogs can be trained as assistants to help people get around and alert them to things like smoke or gas. I know a lady who took her cat to the nursing home with her. It still lives there. When I come home alone at night, I’m greeted by my family: The yard dogs run up to the car door and wag furiously; the cats come running to be fed and then settle down on or near me after dinner. The guard dogs and sheep run up the pasture knowing food is coming but also will come over for a little treat or scratch between the ears. My kids are flung out over the country and I have a part time husband. I would be so lonely without my furry children I couldn’t cope.

The presence of a pet actually lowers a person’s blood pressure and reduces stress and anxiety because pets provide intangibles, meaning they live in the here and now, which is contagious, according to psychotherapist Dr. Jay P. Granat. Soon their human parent is living in the present along with the animal rather than fretting about the past or the future. Pets are a distraction from the aging problems elderly people tend to obsess over.

Before you take the leap

• Prior to gifting an elderly person with a pet there are many things to take into consideration. Some people simply do not like dogs and cats so don’t insist this person have a pet. It’s probably not going to work out well for the human or the animal.

• Has the person ever had a dog or cat before? If not, presenting him with a pet in his twilight years might not be ideal. He won’t know how to care for the animal.

• When a person has a disability this is a huge factor. Cats are easier to care for than dogs so might be a better companion for the person. A small dog rather than a large one is preferable.

• A dog or cat with a lousy temperament is the last thing an elderly person needs in their life. Shelter workers are familiar with the animals and their personalities and can guide you in the right direction. You certainly do not want to mistakenly adopt a Cujo.

• Puppies and kitten require a lot work. An older dog, who is toilet trained and not so hyper or demanding, is probably a better choice.

• The animal should be in good health. Giving a sick animal to an elderly person is not an optimal situation. Pets carry diseases and the last thing you want to do is expose someone with an already compromised immune system to illness.

• Can the person afford food and medical treatment for the animal?

• Friends and relatives needs to know when an elderly person has a pet. If the person is taken to the hospital or dies the pet must be rescued and taken care of. Dogs and cats have been inadvertently left alone for days because no one knew they existed.

L.C., age 72: If we didn’t have our dog I wouldn’t have a reason to go outside and take a leak. It’s the only exercise I get! Seriously, my wife and I love our dog and there are many times during the day he makes us smile.

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About This Blogger

Cindi Pearce

Cindi Pearce has been writing professionally since the days of manual typewriters. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ohio University, Cindi is especially interested in women’s health concerns. She teaches yoga, is an amateur belly dancer, loves mowing her five acres of land with her beloved zero turn mower, has three grown children, one granddaughter and five large dogs. Cindi has managed to stay married to the same man for 35 years.

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