People who own pets probably know intuitively that their animal friend
improves their quality of life. Science continues to support that belief, most
recently by recognizing our pets as significant contributors to our ability to
A recent study found that a pet provides both mental and physical health
benefits to elderly owners. The researchers looked at how owning a dog or cat
affected the overall health of older people living independently in the
community (as opposed to living in a nursing home). They found that seniors who
have pets are less likely to decline physically and mentally over the course of
a year than their pet-less peers. They are also less likely to visit the doctor.
They stay more active than their peers: the routines of pet care, such as
walking a dog, may encourage seniors to move around and help them maintain
better physical health. Pets give older people companionship and encourage
interaction with other people; they may help fill a critical void if their
elderly owner doesn't have a strong social network. During stressful times, such
as the death of a spouse, seniors who own pets are more likely to weather the
crisis well than those who don't.
These findings should not come as a surprise. Previous studies have already
shown pets to be directly related to their owner's lower stress and blood
pressure levels, improved heart attack survival chances, and lessened
loneliness. For years, nursing homes have encouraged pet owners to bring in
their dogs, cats, rabbits, and other pets for the enjoyment of their residents,
and have found it more satisfactory to residents than other types of therapies,
such as doing arts and crafts or receiving community visitors. In the 1960s,
Boris Levinson, a psychologist and pioneer of our modern pet visitation
"A pet can provide, in boundless measure, love and unqualified approval. Many elderly and lonely people have discovered that pets satisfy vital emotional needs."
If you own a pet, give Fluffy or Fido an extra pat for contributing to your
good health (or better yet, enroll him or her into a pet visitation program near
you*). If you're interested in getting a pet, or would like to get a pet for an
older person you know, there are several things to think about. In addition to
needing food and other supplies and occasional veterinary care, pets require
love, attention, and some space of their own.
Checchi, Mary Jane. Are You the Pet for Me? Choosing the Right Pet for
Your Family. New York : St. Martin's Paperbacks; 1999.
Marder, Amy. Your Healthy Pet: A Practical Guide to Choosing and Raising
Happier, Healthier Dogs and Cats. Emmaus, Penn.:Rodale Press; 1994.
*To find out more about pet therapy programs in your area, contact your local
Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
Beck AM, Meyers NM. Health enhancement and companion animal ownership. Ann
Rev Public Health. 1996;17:247-257.
Brody J. "Staying Healthy With Fins, Furs and Feathers." The New York
Times; 1998:Jun 23. Available at: www.nytimes.com.
Ory MG, Goldber EL. Pet possession and life satisfaction in elderly women.
In: Katcher AH, Beck AM, eds. New Perspectives on Our Lives with Companion
Animals. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania
Levinson B. Pets and old age. Mental Hygiene 53(3):
Patronek GH, Glickman LT. Pet ownership protects against the risks and
consequences of coronary heart disease. Med Hypotheses.
Perelle IB, Granville DA.
"History of Pet Therapy: Assessment of the Effectiveness of a Pet Facilitated Therapy Program in a Nursing Home Setting."
Available at: http://www.theberries.ns.ca/FNBN/Archives/Pet_Therapy.html.
National Institutes of Health. "The Health Benefits of Pets." Workshop
summary by the National Institutes of Health OMAR Workshop, 1987. Available at:
Raina P, Waltner-Toews D, Bonnettt B, Woodward C, Abernathy T. Influence of
companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people: an
analysis of a one-year longitudinal study. JAGS.
Vormbrock JK, Grossberg JM. Cardiovascular effects of human-pet dog
interactions. J Behav Med.
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