Pet ownership remains one of the most important sources of mental, emotional and physical health for the elderly yet it is often overlooked or ignored as a benefit.
Few residential homes for the elderly allow pets yet global research shows that pet ownership not only counteracts depression, it also encourages physical activity and stimulates the brain.
“Having a pet helps a senior person focus on something other than physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or ageing,” says psychologist Penny Donnenfeld. Pets give a person something to care for, to watch and play with, something that provides a sense of security, something that stimulates some degree of exercise and above all, something that demands a daily routine.
“Animals live very much in the here and now. They don’t worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person. Having a pet with that sense of now tends to rub off on people,” says psychotherapist Dr Jay Granat.
Pet ownership: the benefits
Numerous studies on the effects of pets on elderly people in nursing homes found that residents who interacted with pets smiled more and became measurably more alert than those who had no contact with animals.
Elderly pet owners also made fewer visits to doctors than those who were without animal companions, possibly because the animals mitigated loneliness.
However, while the benefits are numerous there are important considerations to take into account before an elderly person adopts a pet:
* Give careful thought to the breed, age and temperament of the pet. A puppy or kitten may not be the best choice because of the care they require. A young pet may outlive its owner. Yet, it’s also important that the pet isn’t too old since it may fall ill and need costly veterinary attention. A Jack Russell may seem like an attractive option because of its size but they are very high energy and require enormous effort and commitment.
* Ensure the pet is given the all clear by a vet. A sickly animal can be expensive to treat.
* Consider your own physical limitations. If you are physically challenged and unable to walk with a dog, a cat or a caged bird may be a better option.
* Examine your long-term financial security. Can you afford vets’ bills? Sterilisation, vaccinations, parasite control and an annual vet check-up are needed by all dogs and cats. Pets need nutritious, vitamin-enriched food; dogs need grooming and bathing. EberVet Vetshops can help with expert advice on nutrition, grooming and parasite control.
* Consider your residential situation. Can a cat or dog live comfortably in your home? If you have to move, what happens to your pet? You may prefer to adopt a senior pet; they are less energetic, less demanding and are unlikely to outlive you. If you can’t take a pet into your own home, consider volunteering at a shelter. If you are in a residential environment that doesn’t allow pet ownership, ask management to allow pet visits. Many animal shelters will take pets to retirement and nursing homes as a form of therapy.
If you can take care of a pet, he’ll take care of you – for life.
By Dr Hilldidge Beer, CEO of the EberVet Pet Care Group and EberVet Vetshops