Pets and the Elderly: A Good Mix!
Prepared by Kent Burtner for Washington County Department of Aging and Veterans Services,
February, 2000.

According to recent studies older citizens experience some remarkable benefits from owning or being around pets. Among the most surprising data: heart attack patients who owned pets were found to be ten times more likely to survive beyond the first year than non-owners. In another study, elderly people who owned pets suffered far less deterioration over a one year period than non-owners did. But the best news is that older people are generally happier and continue to function better in their daily lives when they have a pet.

Among over 1,000 independently living elderly Canadians studied last year, the 286 people who owned either a cat or a dog were "more physically active than non-pet owners." They also continued to function better in their ability to carry out the normal activities of daily living. The study's author, Dr. Parminder Raina, suggested that pet ownership "may provide older people with a sense of purpose and responsibility and encourage them to be less apathetic and more active in day-to-day activities."

Even regular visits with pets can be beneficial. Researchers from Mercy College, Diane Granville and Ira Perelle, studied the effects of regular visits with pets in a nursing home environment. Six dogs, cats and a rabbit were brought by volunteers to visit patients each week for six months. Not surprisingly, as the patients got used to the animals they also became more connected with each other.

Women, already more socially involved in their residence, were slower to respond than were men, but the men benefited in a way that hadn't been anticipated. Most of them were not as socially involved in their community prior to the animal visits. But after the animal visits began, "months or years of self-imposed social isolation gave way to interaction and immediate improvements" in taking care of themselves.

One gentleman, who had not spoken to anyone since his arrival, asked the volunteer to take a picture of himself with one of the dogs. Several residents who were never seen smiling by staff smiled regularly when interacting with the animals. Eleven residents had to be dressed by others prior to the start of the study; only three had to be dressed by others at the end.

Pets might not make you smarter, but they have a positive effect: a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health indicated that while performing mental arithmetic, women's physiological measures (pulse rate, skin conductance response, and blood pressure) showed less anxiety in the presence of their pet than in the presence of either the examiner alone or a self-selected human friend. The NIH study stated that the error rate in mental arithmetic was highest in the presence of the human friend and lowest in the presence of the dog.

The United States Humane Society points out a number of benefits to pet ownership: pets provide companionship and give people "someone to care for." Because they provide a focus of conversation and activity, pets help people to be more sociable. Pets comfort people with touch and stimulate exercise.

Animals have been associated with humans for at least fifty thousand years, first as scavengers, then as working companions, and finally as pets and sources of pleasure. No surprise, then, that researchers continue to show that pets provide real heath benefits to the elderly.