A buddy to share a morsel of food with, a walking companion, a mischievous friend and a profound comfort. Older adults reap great benefit from caring for dogs, cats or other household animals. Pets may provide a talisman against loneliness, isolation and inactivity. Study after study show the good pets can do.
What happens, however, when a beloved pet becomes chronically ill or disabled? Below, experts share their insights on the health connection between seniors and beloved pets.
Walking and Well-Being
“Let’s take a walk!” For most dogs, pulling out a leash is a sure way to set their tails wagging. For many seniors, having a dog is great motivation to get moving. And the biggest health boost comes to dog-walking owners who have the strongest bonds with their pets, according to a study in the October issue of the journal The Gerontologist.
Positive effects tied to active pet ownership included lower body mass index, fewer reported doctor visits and less sedentary time, according to findings in The Gerontologist that were based on seniors with an average age of 67 who participated in the larger Health and Retirement Study in 2012. In this new analysis, 271 participants owned one or more dogs, while 500 did not.
Dog owners who walked their dogs showed the best health results. Non-dog owners landed somewhere in the middle. Surprisingly, the worst off were senior dog owners who did not walk their dogs. This last group reported less physical activity, more mobility limitations, more doctor visits and more chronic conditions than others in the study.
Regular sniff-and-explore walks could indicate better bonding with pets than a dogged focus on distance. Participants who dog-walked farther in a shorter time were less likely to be bonded with their pets than those who covered less ground at a more leisurely pace.
“Part of the bonding variable includes talking with others about your dog,” says study author Angela Curl, an assistant professor with the department of family science and social work at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “Perhaps people who are highly bonded are stopping to talk to others – pet owners and non-pet owners – and don’t walk so far.”
More attached owners could be better attuned to their dog’s health concerns, Curl says. As for the health of dog owners, people in the study with fewer chronic conditions were more likely to walk their dogs and do so more days of the week.
If you’re thinking about getting a dog as a walking companion, take both of your energy levels into account, Curl suggests. “You have to make sure you have a good match with a pet,” she says. “A dog who hates dog-walking is not a good health benefit. Some dogs don’t [like walks]. If you have to drag your dog, that’s not a motivator.”
On the other end of the spectrum, with a super-strong German shepherd or boxer who walks you, outings could feel more like a struggle than a pleasure. If your balance is shaky, risk of falling is another consideration.
At any age, having a pet takes some planning. As an owner, think about finding a backup for pet care in case of sudden illness, Curl suggests. “My grandmother went into the hospital once and she didn’t call us to say she was in an accident,” she recalls. “She called to tell us the dog needed to be taken care of.”
Sickness and Strain
As people age, their pets age right along with them – on a sharper, uneven curve. The familiar formula that dogs age at a rate of seven human years for each “dog year” isn’t accurate, according to the senior pet page on the American Veterinary Medical Association website.
A 7-year-old dog compares to a human of 44 to 56 years, according to the AVMA. But three years later, that 10-year-old dog could compare in health anywhere from a 56- to a 78-year-old human. As for felines, 15 cat years translates to 78 human years, health-wise.
Older pets are vulnerable to arthritis. Their sight and hearing often fade. For owners who may themselves be frail, it’s hard to cope with a heavy Labrador who’s suffering from hip dysplasia. Aging pets can develop cancer or heart, kidney or liver disease. The reality is most pet owners will eventually see their animals through sickness and disability. That can take a heavy emotional toll.
Creating memorials and talking to friends can help ease the loss of an animal companion.
While extensive research shows the emotional, physical and financial strains of taking care of a loved family member, there’s been little about the burden tied to caregiving for a sick pet, says Mary Beth Spitznagel, an associate professor with the department of psychological sciences at Kent State University in Ohio.
To learn more, Spitznagel teamed up with veterinarians for a study published in the September issue of the journal Veterinary Record. Online survey responses came from 600 dog or cat owners. Participants with sick pets showed signs of burden and stress, symptoms of depression and anxiety and poorer quality of life.
Although the sample size of seniors wasn’t large enough to reach age-based conclusions, it’s likely that taking care of ailing pets could be more difficult for them, Spitznagel says. An older adult who’s lost a spouse might find it especially stressful when a pet becomes sick, for example, because the pet may represent the last living link to his or her spouse.
Owners can suffer from sleeplessness and despair as they struggle to meet the needs of an ailing animal who can’t tell them what’s wrong. In some respects, the experience is similar to taking care of an ailing family member.
“It’s extremely important that we don’t minimize human caregiving,” Spitznagel notes. “If you’re taking care of a parent with dementia or a spouse who’s had a stroke, we’re really not trying to equate that [with pet caregiving].” However, she adds, “It’s important to be aware that pet caregiver stress exists, and have a sense of what it is.”
Sometimes, pet owners could use a little help from their human friends. If the burden of caring for a sick pet becomes too much, ask people around you for help, Spitznagel advises: “Make sure to surround yourself with people who can be supportive, whether that’s emotional support, or more day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground support.”
When distress builds to the point that it interferes with day-to-day function, it’s time to think about talking to a professional, such as a counselor or psychologist, Spitznagel says. Still, she adds, “Even when somebody’s experiencing burden, there can also be tremendous benefit from having a pet.”