The value of pet ownership for older adults

October is Adopt-A-Shelter-Dog Month. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sponsors this event to promote the adoption of dogs from local shelters. Approximately 3.3 million dogs enter shelters every year.

Owning a pet seems like a good idea, especially for isolated seniors. Let’s go one better: Owning a dog may help you maintain a healthy heart, especially if that pet is a dog, according to a new study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes.

“In general, people who owned any pet were more likely to report more physical activity, better diet and blood sugar at ideal level,” says Andrea Maugeri, a study researcher. “The greatest benefits from having a pet were for those who owned a dog, independent of their age, sex and education level.”

[See: Is it Healthy to Sleep With Your Pets?]

Benefits of pet ownership

Maugeri hinted at one of the benefits, which is physical activity. The National Poll on Healthy Aging, sponsored by AARP and the University of Michigan, found many more. Pets help older adults enjoy life, make them feel loved, reduce stress, provide a sense of purpose and help them stick to a routine. Pets connect people. Pets help older adults cope with physical and emotional symptoms by taking their mind off pain.

Considerations of owning when older

Having a pet when older takes some planning. Here are some things to consider:

— First-timers can make great pet owners if they’re open to the experience. Some experts believe that having a pet previously is better preparation.

— Take into considerations any functional limitations you have. Dogs have to be walked, and some dogs can walk you! So, if that’s something that you cannot do, consider a cat, bird or even fish in an aquarium. They’re less maintenance.

— There is a trade-off on owning a puppy or kitten versus a trained animal. You have to train a new pet, and that can be taxing. Younger pets will often outlive their owners so you need to consider who will care for the pet if it outlives you. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a 7-year-old dog compares to a human of 44 to 56 years, but three years later, that 10-year-old dog could compare in health anywhere from a 56- to a 78-year-old human. And 15 cat years translates to 78 human years, health-wise.

— Likewise, if you should become unable, even temporarily, to take care of a pet, you need a backup plan. That could happen if you have a hospitalization.

— Thinking down the road, should you need assisted living or skilled nursing care, you need to consider whether and which places will allow pets.

— Consider the dog’s temperament. Smaller breeds like terriers may seem like something you could handle; however, they are high energy animals.

— Make sure your pet is healthy. Unhealthy pets can be a burden emotionally and financially. Losing a pet can be traumatic.

— Consider a therapy dog in the right situation. Someone who is very infirmed or impaired could benefit from a specially-trained dog.

[See: 14 Ways to Protect Seniors From Falls.]

I’ve decided to get a pet. Now what?

— Decide where to buy. A shelter dog can come with baggage. Behavioral issues, illnesses or high maintenance costs may surface after adoption. On the other hand, you can save a life, break the cycle of pet overpopulation and stop cruelty in mass breeding facilities by adopting from a shelter.

— Consider cost. Buying from a pet store or breeder will cost more money. Can you afford it? Have you also calculated the cost of keeping a pet? The first-year cost of pet ownership exceeds $1,000, according to the ASPCA.

— Research different breeds’ characteristics and interact with prospective adoptees to get a feel for their energy levels and personality.

Getting assistance

Pets for the Elderly is a good place to start. This foundation helps pay the fees to participating animal shelters throughout the United States for people over 60 who adopt a companion dog or cat — including pre-adoption veterinary exams and spay/neuter, if part of the adoption fee.

— Local humane societies typically offer senior discounts for adoption.

— is an online, searchable database of animals who need homes. It also has a directory of nearly 11,000 animal shelters and adoption organizations across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Senior isolation and loneliness are real. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality, is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and increases the chance of developing clinical dementia.

[See: Exercise Equipment for Seniors.]

So, during this month when we consider the plight of un-adopted animals, consider the plight of the lonely, isolated seniors living around you.

More from U.S. News

7 Ways Pets Can Make You Healthier

Is it Healthy to Sleep With Your Pets?

Is Your Pet Imperiling Your Health?

The Value of Pet Ownership for Older Adults originally appeared on

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