Older adults and pets: health benefits and challenges

A friend with whom to share a piece of food, a walking companion, a mischievous friend and a deep comfort. Elderly people benefit greatly from caring for dogs, cats or other pets. Animals can be a talisman against solitude, isolation and inactivity. Study after study shows that pets can do good.

But what happens when a beloved pet becomes chronically ill or disabled? Below, experts share their perspectives on the health bond between seniors and their beloved pets.

“Let’s have a walk!” For most dogs, pulling the leash is a sure way to get the tail wagging. For many older people, having a dog is a great motivator to get moving. And the biggest health gain goes to owners who walk their dogs and have the strongest bonds with their pets, a study finds. study in the October issue of The Gerontologist.

Positive effects of active pet ownership included lower body mass index, fewer doctor visits and less sedentary time, according to findings from The Gerontologist based on people aged 67 on average who participated in the largest health and retirement study in 2012. In this new analysis, 271 participants owned one or more dogs, while 500 did not.

Dog owners who walk their dogs showed the best health results. Non-dog owners fall somewhere in the middle. Surprisingly, those worst off were older dog owners who did not walk their dogs. The latter group reported less physical activity, more mobility limitations, more doctor visits, and more chronic illnesses than other study participants.

Regular walks to sniff and explore might indicate better bonding with pets than a stubborn focus on distance. Participants who walked their dogs farther in less time were less likely to be bonded with their pets than those who covered less ground at a more leisurely pace.

“Part of the emotional bonding variable is talking about your dog with others,” says study author Angela Curl, an assistant professor in the department of family sciences and social work at the University of Miami. Oxford, Ohio. “Perhaps strongly bonded people stop to talk to others – pet owners and non-pet owners – and don’t walk as far.”

More attached owners might be better attuned to their dog’s health concerns, Curl says. When it comes to dog owner health, people in the study with fewer chronic illnesses were more likely to walk their dogs and do so more days per week.

If you’re considering getting a dog as a walking companion, consider both of your energy levels, Curl suggests. “You need to make sure you have good compatibility with a pet,” she says. “A dog that hates walking your dog is not good for your health. Some dogs don’t like walks. If you have to drag your dog, that’s not motivation.”

On the other end of the spectrum, with a super strong walking German Shepherd or Boxer You, going out can feel more like a struggle than a pleasure. If your balance is fragile, risk of falling is another consideration.

At any age, having a pet takes time planning. As an owner, consider finding a backup person to care for your pet in the event of a sudden illness, suggests Curl. “My grandmother went to the hospital once and she didn’t call us to tell us she had been in an accident,” she recalls. “She called us to tell us we needed to take care of the dog.”

As people age, their pets age with them – in a sharper, uneven curve. The familiar formula that dogs age at the rate of seven human years for every “dog year” is not accurate, according to the senior pets page on the American Veterinary Medical Association website.

A 7-year-old dog compares to a 44- to 56-year-old human, according to the AVMA. But three years later, this 10-year-old dog could be compared in terms of health to that of a 56- to 78-year-old human. As for felines, 15 cat years correspond to 78 human years, health-wise.

Older pets are vulnerable to arthritis. Their vision and hearing often decline. For owners who are fragile themselves, it is difficult to care for a heavy Labrador who suffers from hip dysplasia. Aging pets can develop cancer or heart, kidney, or liver disease. The reality is that most pet owners will eventually see their pets go through illness or disability. This can take a heavy emotional toll.

Although extensive research shows the emotional, physical, and financial strains of caring for a loved family member, little has been studied of the burden associated with provision of care for a sick animal, says Mary Beth Spitznagel, associate professor in 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 Veterinary Record. Responses to the online survey 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 older people isn’t large enough to draw conclusions based on age, it’s likely that caring for sick animals might be more difficult for them, Spitznagel says. An older person who has lost a spouse may find it particularly stressful when a pet becomes ill, for example, because the pet may represent the last living connection to their spouse.

Owners may suffer from insomnia and despair as they struggle to meet the needs of a sick pet who can’t tell them what’s wrong. In some ways, the experience is akin to caring for a sick family member.

“It is extremely important not to minimize care provided by human beings,” notes Spitznagel. “If you’re caring for a parent with dementia or a spouse who’s had a stroke, we don’t really try to equate that (with caring for a pet).” However, she adds, “it’s important to be aware that animal caregiver stress exists and to have an idea of ​​what it’s like.”

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 those around you for help, advises Spitznagel: “Make sure you surround yourself with people who can provide support, whether it’s “emotional support or, more on a daily basis, support. – support on the ground.”

When distress builds up to the point that it interferes with daily functioning, it’s time to consider talking to a professional, such as a counselor or psychologist, Spitznagel says. Yet, she adds, “Even when someone is experiencing a burden, having a pet can also have enormous benefits.”


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