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Seniors and pets: how seniors benefit from owning a pet

Seniors and pets: how seniors benefit from owning a pet

Domesticated horses, dogs, and cats can be seen in ancient culture, literature, and art.1 It seems humans have kept animals as pets for almost as long as human history stretches back. And when you look at all the health benefits of having a pet companion, it’s no wonder why.

From reducing heart disease to improving mood and wellbeing, there are plenty of scientifically proven ways pets add years to your life. Let’s take a look at exactly how ‘Fido’ and ‘Fluffy’ can positively impact your health.

The health benefits of owning a pet

Pets reduce your risk of heart disease

Exercise, healthy diet and medication are common treatments to keep blood pressure and cholesterol in check. But research2 has confirmed a link between reduced risk of heart disease and pet ownership.

Baker Medical Research Institution in Melbourne conducted a study of 5,741 people over a three-year period. They discovered lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels in pet owners than in those who do not own pets, even after accounting for personal factors such as diet, weight and smoking status.2

You might put this down to the fact pet owners are generally more active, and their improved heart health is owed to their increased exercise. But the research demonstrates pet owners also drank more alcohol and ordered take-out food more regularly than people who did not own pets – and they still had lower cholesterol despite these factors.

Pets improve communication

Pets provide an opportunity for non-verbal communication that can help engage those suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

A recent study conducted in Germany3 involved dogs visiting 17 nursing home residents suffering from dementia. The study found the participants who took part in the animal assisted therapy sessions had improved verbal communication function and greater attentiveness after the completion of the program.

A separate study at the University of Michigan4 found pets are capable of generating social responses from those suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease, even where sufferers did not respond to human interaction.

Pets reduce visits to the doctor

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but did you know pet ownership has been shown to reduce visits to the doctor? Research5 at the University of California at Los Angeles demonstrated senior pet-owners visit the doctor less regularly than those without pets.

It is unclear whether this is because of overall improvements to health resulting from pet ownership or reduced loneliness, or a combination of both. But regardless of the cause, the science shows pet ownership may be an effective low-cost health intervention.6

Pets improve mood

Changes in personal circumstances, side effects of medication, and lifestyle changes can all result in seniors feeling less connected.7 But there are plenty of things you can do to keep the blues at bay, including cuddling up to a cute and cuddly pet.

A study8 on the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy measured wellbeing and mood in nursing home residents. The group who had spent time with animals reported feeling ‘enthusiastic’, ‘interested’ and ‘inspired’ significantly more than those who did not spend time with pets.

Pets help people socialise

Having a pet is a big responsibility and will involve making changes to your daily routine. But many of these changes will be for the better and will create opportunities to socialise. Walking your dog allows you to interact with people in your neighbourhood. Pet clubs and meet-ups are another great way to find people with common interests, and a way to interact with people from younger generations, too.

A study8 of the effects of dog interaction on sociability of seniors in a hospice found those who spent time with a dog spent less time alone than before the dog was introduced, and the hospice staff reported the dogs gave patients and staff something to talk about.

Pets keep you moving

Having a dog that requires walking will obviously increase activity levels, but even house-bound pets such as cats, birds, or fish, require feeding and petting, which helps seniors maintain mobility and mental clarity.

A Canadian study8 of over 65-year-olds demonstrated pet owners are more likely to maintain ‘activities of daily living’.

Pets require care and maintenance, which helps establish a routine, and participants reported having an animal gave them a reason to get up in the morning.

Is getting a pet the right choice for you?

Despite all the proven health benefits of pets, they are a big responsibility and may not be right for everyone. Here are a few things to consider before you commit to bringing a pet into your home.

  • Affordability: Vet visits, food, toys and equipment all add up. Make sure you chose a pet that isn’t going to strain your finances.
  • Size: Though big dogs make lovely companions, they might not be right for apartments or retirement homes. Small to medium sized dog breeds, such as terriers and poodles may be a more suitable option. Cats, birds and fish may be more suited to apartment or retirement-village living.
  • Activity levels: Some pet breeds are known to be higher energy than others, so it pays to do some research and find a breed with the temperament you are looking for. Low-energy dog breeds such as Cavaliers and Pugs9 are popular with seniors. When it comes to cats, the more sedate Persian and Ragdoll breeds make for lovable companions, as they are typically calm, gentle and fairly independent.10
  • Age: Adopting a mature animal is a great way to match a pet’s activity levels to your own. Older pets are house trained, require less exercise, are less excitable and have already developed their own character.11 They still have years of love and life to give their lucky owners, and are less of a long-term commitment.
  • Part-time companions: If you want the health benefits of pet ownership, but are concerned about the full-time responsibility, consider seeking out opportunities to walk or visit a neighbour’s pet or help at an animal shelter.


  1. How many pets are there in Australia?RSPCA
  2. Pet ownership and risk factors for cardiovascular diseaseNational Center for Biotechnology Information
  3. Animal-Assisted Intervention Helps Patients with DementiaManaged Health Care Connect
  4. The Effect of a Therapy Dog on Socialization and Physiological Indicators of Stress in Persons Diagnosed with Alzheimer's DiseaseSAGE Knowledge
  5. Health; Pet Owners Go to the Doctor LessThe New York Times
  6. Help Support Pets for the ElderlyPets for the Elderly Foundation
  7. Connections matterBeyondblue
  8. Pets and the ElderlyPet Positives
  9. Best Dogs for Apartment DwellersAmerican Kennel Club
  10. Low-Energy Cat BreedsPurina
  11. No adoption fee for seniorsRSPCA Victoria