Seniors and pets: pros and cons



Patricia Hort and the many rescue dogs she shares her life with

Written by Nicola Dee van Ass

Professional photography by Jacqui L. Photography

As modern medicine improves, so does our ability to live longer, healthier and more fulfilled lives. People are remaining independent for longer and require higher standards of living when it comes to comfort and lifestyle.

One of the things we’re noticing is an increasing need for the inclusion of pets in the lives of the more senior person. There have been many studies done that investigate the pros and cons of having animals involved in the lives of elderly people.

We look at the benefits and risks of having a pet when you’re a senior citizen.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

Before one can consider getting a pet (if you don’t already have one), it’s important to take into account the possible downsides. This way, you’re prepared for what may happen and can put things in place to avoid them.

Taking a tumble

Falling is the main problem that one could encounter when owing a pet. From a large breed dog jumping up on you to a smaller breed that gets underfoot and causes their owner to trip, falling poses the most risk to an older person. A dog pulling you off your feet when on a walk can also be a cause for concern.

As we age, our bones become more brittle and our joints less flexible. Breaking hips used to be a joke, but as we get older this risk becomes a reality as it takes so little to cause such damage.

Making sure an emergency contact is always available, whether a whistle in a populated area, or panic button or phone with emergency services on it that hangs around your neck, if you fall and cannot get up, you need to make sure you’re able to get help to you.

Ensuring your dog is well-trained so that he won’t jump up is also important. Older animals tend to be less likely to lunge or jump, or run around underfoot.

Scratches and bruises

As we age, our skin becomes thinner and more easily broken. Nails from dogs, cats and birds like parrots have a high potential to break the skin and cause bleeding. Usually, the scratches will be insignificant, but when taking some medications that cause thinning of the blood, this can become a potential problem. There’s also a risk of infection.

Keeping your pets’ nails or claws short and neat will help prevent the scratches. It’s also important to read their body language in order to help prevent a cat from scrabbling or a dog from wriggling to try and get down. However, never even consider having an animal “declawed” as this removes the first joint of their toes and not just the claw.

Physical exertion

The only other real health risk of owning a pet is physical exertion on the body. Back problems can occur from bending to pick up your pet or their food bowls, from bathing them or from lifting them off a counter to put them on the floor.

The easiest way to counter these kinds of problems is to have a grooming parlour take care of the bathing, while you take care of the brushing and gentle grooming sessions. Consider investing in pet stairs so that they can climb up on their own without you having to pick them up.

Finances and the future

It’s very important to make sure you can keep your pet healthy (for example, with the correct food, exercise, etc.) and have a way of getting your pet the medicinal treatment they need. An unhealthy animal can cost a fortune and many people cannot afford to have this extra financial burden.

The final consideration to owning a pet when you are more senior is one that many people don’t want to think about – but should. It’s the possibility of you passing away before your pet does. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to get their elderly parents a puppy or kitten, not considering that this animal has the potential to outlive their owner or think about what they would do with the pet should this occur.

Make sure that you put your pet in your will, specifying who will look after them and how (for example, if your pet is used to sleeping indoors, specify that this must continue), and outlining what can and can’t be done (for example, making it clear that your pet cannot just be dumped at a shelter).

Another excellent solution is to adopt an older pet; a golden oldie requires just as much interaction as a young pup in terms of feeding, love, etc. but they jump less, need less exercise, learn quickly, ask for more physical contact – such as gentle brushing and scratches – and tend to be much more suited to an older lifestyle. Fostering is also an option as this is a temporary arrangement while the animal welfare looks for a forever home.

Plus, they need you as much as you need them.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?

The pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to having a pet as an elderly person. Many scientific studies have provided proof that there’s an amazing amount of health benefits that come with owning a pet. Not just for the elderly but for children and adults too.

Keeping you going

The first major benefit is that animals require consistency and routine – they force you to “get up and go”. It becomes far too easy for us to become sedentary and lazy when we have nothing to help keep us motivated.

All animals need interaction, and to be fed and groomed daily. Dogs require walking, bathroom breaks and exercise; cats need interaction and to be let out; birds need their cages cleaned. Each of these activities means that their owner must be physically involved. A short walk increases the circulation in our bodies as well as our cardiovascular system and this improves our health; even playing with a cat will help.

Grooming an animal, whether with a brush or just stroking their fur, encourages physical contact, which lowers blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. It calms not only the body, but the mind as well and helps decrease stress and worrying thoughts.

Home sweet home

For many, leaving home and socialising gets increasingly difficult as we get older, not just for personal reasons, but for physical ones as well. Having a pet at home provides companionship that helps us cope with daily life. It allows us to talk to someone, even though they might not be able to talk back. It gives us a sense of belonging and family as many people see their pets as a member of their family.

With a pet sleeping in your room or even on your bed, you’ll feel safer, more comfortable and like you have someone there with you all the time. Feelings of loneliness lessen, and this automatically makes us feel better.

A reason to live

Pets give all of us a reason to live; a reason to get up in the morning and to function throughout the day. Knowing that someone else relies on you and is incapable of doing specific things for themselves makes you feel needed and important: you have a life in your hands.

This encourages you to stick to routine, to do the chores so that you can spend time together and to make sure your pet has everything they need. Helping look after another living being encourages us to look after ourselves – and this can only be beneficial.

Currently, most old age homes and nursing homes don’t allow pets of any kind. This is very slowly changing as science proves the benefits of having pets in an elderly community. Internationally there are some places that are beginning to incorporate needy animals, such as kittens that require bottle-feeding and puppies that have deformities, into the daily routines of the elderly. And the benefits are amazing. There are quite a few retirement villages and communities that do allow pets and they can be researched to find out where they are and how much they cost to live there.

Having a pet may cause your finances to decrease, but your health, happiness and well-being will certainly increase.

Testimonial Story

Dad’s Best Friends

Written by Dalaine Nel

A few years after my dad’s retirement, we noticed his memory was starting to fail more and more on a daily basis. After many tests and doctors’ visits, my dad was finally diagnosed as having dementia. And it’s his two dogs which have become an invaluable part of his life.

Having worked with my dad these last few years, and reading article after article and researching various ways of how to help someone suffering from this incurable disease, one thing stays very clear: his two dogs are a great help in managing his health.

Mood booster

One of the biggest benefits we’ve seen is that when he’s active and going for regular walks or bike rides, his mood seems to generally be SO much better.

Early every morning he takes their medium-sized girl, Jessie, rescued from a local shelter a few years ago, for a nice long walk. Upon their return home, she has her daily “zoomies” around the garden with my dad, causing fits of laughter at the crazy antics she gets up to in the process. Then it’s her daily feed once she’s calmed and cooled down.

Jessie is such a foolish and crazy lady and most definitely keeps the smile on his dial when he might feel life is getting him down.

Cuddle comforts

Then there’s little Kate, the tan princess of the home. Rescued after being hit by a car, this little Dachshund girl entered my parents’ home as a scared, thin and neglected girl with a broken front leg. Under mom and dad’s care she blossomed into a confident little lass, now ruling the house. Although my dad cannot remember her story and has asked to see her “before” pictures many, many times, he knows exactly what he has in her.

At a guesstimated age of 11 and with the previous injury, Kate is not a very active Dachshund, which suits the needs of my dad perfectly. She enjoys nothing more than a cuddle on the couch, quietly sitting on his lap, nudging him continuously with her nose when he stops rubbing her.

Stroking and patting her keeps my dad “busy”, and as has been proved before, stroking your pet helps to reduce agitation, blood pressure and makes you feel happy and content. 

His dogs are giving him immense pleasure and the fun in their little ways of doing things keeps him smiling and pushing forward. He will ALWAYS remember them at home if they are out visiting and, at this stage, they are his reason to return home again.

They just love you for who you are

Many people tend to avoid individuals who suffer dementia, due to the fact that they feel uncomfortable or don’t know how to handle situations with the affected person. This at times causes the person to lose their friends, and often they are alone and left feeling lonely and unloved.

I cannot think of anything better to help combat those feelings of worthlessness than the loyalty and love of a pet companion.

In my opinion, seeing how my dad interacts with his pets (and mine too), animals’ non-judgemental nature makes them perfect companions for people affected by dementia. They won’t question behaviour or get frustrated with people, and they provide a fantastic source of support and unconditional love. With a tail up and wagging, always happy to see you, always ready to love you and content to listen (or not if you don’t feel like talking) or just sit and be with you for comfort.

As perfectly said in the words of Charlie Brown: “A dog doesn’t try to give advice, or judge you; they just love you for who you are. It’s nice to have someone who will just sit and listen to you.”