Stories showcasing heroic and therapeutic benefits of pet ownership are by no means rare. In fact, researchers have discovered that pets help us live happier, healthier lives by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing stress and risk of depression and improving long-term survival after a heart attack.
It seems Fido really is man’s – and woman’s – best friend.
Maureen Hatcher was alone when she fell face first in her St. Augustine home from a stroke. Her Labrador Retriever, Sadie, came immediately; and Hatcher told the dog, “Mommy needs help.” A home security video shows Sadie and Bella, Hatcher’s other Lab, running out the front door. Moments later, they returned with a neighbor who dialed 911. Jacksonville doctors removed a blood clot that was cutting off blood to Hatcher’s brain. Sadie’s quick action is credited with preventing permanent brain damage.
Zev, a retired Air Force veteran and neurosurgeon, and his wife, Judy, adopted a 2-year-old rescue dog named Benji on New Year’s Day 2020. A few months later, the couple were among the first to be diagnosed with COVID-19 in Palm Beach County. Zev credits Benji with helping the retirees recover. By walking the dog and playing fetch, the couple gained back their stamina.
While canines seem to be “top dog” when it comes to health benefits for pet owners, cats and other household pets also contribute positively to our quality of life.
The American Heart Association reported pet ownership, particularly dog ownership tends to reduce risk for cardiovascular diseases. These findings are especially significant given the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. Some of their findings include:
- Blood pressure decreased significantly in a patient group that adopted dogs.
- A large-scale study reported lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels for pet owners. Another study linked non-dog ownership with an increase in diabetes.
- Dog owners tended to be less obese, due to increased physical activity.
- One study showed dog ownership decreased the mortality of cardiovascular recurrence by four times.
While increased physical activity likely plays a role, other experts say a contributing factor could be pet owners’ reporting improved mood and emotional state. The journal “Science” reported that oxytocin, the body’s feel-good chemical, is boosted when humans even look into the eyes of dogs.
But what about cats?
For some older adults, and others with mobility challenges, a cat could be the “purrfect” pet. Cats also confer healthy benefits. Cat owners report lower stress and anxiety. A 10-year study found that cat owners were 30% less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than non-pet owners. Cats also are believed to help reduce allergies and help increase immunity due to pollen, grass and other outdoor elements felines bring into the house.
And for insomniacs, there’s more good news. A British poll found that women slept better with their cats than with their partners!
Researchers found that pets can aid people going through cancer therapy, not only providing comfort but a motivation to get better. Additionally, researchers detected improved oxygen saturation levels of their pet-owning patients.
Even Florence Nightingale, the 19th century social reformist and nurse, advocated for chronically ill patients having “a small pet” for a better sense of well-being.
Older pet owners
Trinity, an 8-year-old black Labrador Retriever mix, was rescued and up for adoption. Shelter workers warned 92-year-old James that the dog was sweet and gentle but could not see that well. Not a problem, James assured them.
“We have something in common,” he said with a smile.
Older people may be the biggest beneficiaries of owning a pet, and a University of Michigan national poll shows 55% of Americans age 50-80 own at least one. Most participants said pets made aging feel “easier, both physically and mentally.”
Dr. Alice Pomidor, a professor of geriatrics at Florida State University College of Medicine, agrees.
“Loneliness in and of itself is a hazard to your health,” Pomidor said. “Lonely people have greater rates of chronic disease.”
While some experts say people are never too old to own a pet, others say aging may bring special challenges when it comes to pet ownership. Reduced mobility, hospitalization and other factors may require special considerations, even for the most avid pet lovers.
Tips for older pet owners
For older people with mobility or balance issues, pets, and their bedding, toys and food bowls, can present a tripping hazard. Large, rambunctious dogs may be too much to handle safely on a walk. As one expert put it, “Dogs have to be walked, but some dogs can walk you!”
Another concern: Some people on a limited pension may find that food and veterinarian bills are prohibitive.
Still, if you love animals, many experts say there are ways to keep them in your life. Here are some tips:
- Instead of a dog, consider a cat, bird or even fish.
- Be sure to have a backup plan for pet care in case you face a sudden health crisis that may require hospitalization.
- Make sure a friend or family member is aware of the plan.
- Consider the breed of the dog. Smaller dogs may be easier to handle.
- Recommended breeds include Bichon Frise, French Bulldog, Maltese and Corgi.
Rescue shelters can also provide ideal companions. In Manatee County, Florida, the local Humane Society created Senior for Seniors, a program that promotes the emotional and health benefits of owning an older dog or cat to adults 65 years and older. Adoption fees are waived.
“We believe matching a senior pet with a senior citizen enhances the lives of both the animal and human,” said Rick Yocum, executive director of the Humane Society.
They won’t get an argument from Maureen Hatcher, the St. Augustine stroke victim.
“By rights, I shouldn’t be in the shape that I’m in,” Hatcher said gratefully, with Bella and Sadie sitting at her feet. “I am blessed, very blessed.”