Pets — They Do Your Mind and Body Good

I joke I’m the waitress and housekeeper for two cats and a senior terrier mix always on the hunt for her next meal. They landed in shelters after living on the streets, but now share a home with a doting pet parent.

But the benefits are not all theirs.

There are some health benefits of pet ownership for seniors also:

1. Better cardiovascular health.

Owning a dog (or being owned by a cat) offers a host of benefits for cardiovascular health. Pet ownership lowers both heart rate and blood pressure. For those with existing heart disease, progression of the disease seems to slow with pet ownership. More than 30 years ago, a study showed pet ownership lowered the risk of death from a serious heart attack. You’re more likely to pass your triglyceride and cholesterol blood tests, too.

Pets also reduce the real-time cardiovascular effects of stress. Stress is unavoidable and causes heart rate and blood pressure to increase. Having a pet blunts the increase in both heart rate and blood pressure, especially if the pet is with you, but even if it isn’t.

2. Pets promote exercise.

Those who walk their dogs can improve their heart health and meet the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week.

A recent long-term study showed pet owners who are 50+ were more active with less obesity and fewer limitations in their activities of daily living. They also had fewer visits to their doctors. In a study of adults older than 65, dog owners were twice as likely to maintain their mobility over a three-year period than their contemporaries. These findings add up to more independence.

3. Pets offer emotional support.

One of the greatest benefits of pet ownership is emotional support. In a recent study, 85% of dog owners and 75% of cat owners reported positive effects of pet ownership during the pandemic. Heather Clements, a Ph.D. student at the University of the West of Scotland, said, “Companion animals not only helped to take their guardians’ minds off negative thoughts associated with the pandemic but also provided a much-needed source of purpose.”

Pet ownership proves beneficial to those living alone or having lost a spouse or companion. Some studies show pets reduce loneliness and feelings of isolation. For those of us with pets, we didn’t need the study to prove what we already knew.

4. Pets promote community engagement.

Research in the U.S. points to pets creating neighborhood cohesion. Pet owners report walking their dogs leads to meeting neighbors, regardless of whether they are pet owners. In fact, pet ownership is one of the top five ways people new to a community meet others. I can vouch for this, having moved from Montana to Texas in the middle of the pandemic.

So, what does all this add up to? If you want a number, the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative puts the healthcare savings in the U.S. at more than $11 billion. I’d bet though that pet owners, especially seniors, would say the benefits are priceless.

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