(Old) Man’s Best Friend: Five Reasons Older Adults Should Get a Pet

If you own a pet, you probably know what it’s like to feel the loyalty and companionship that furry friends bring. They make us happy—no matter how old we are.

In fact, having a pet might be the secret to helping seniors through a “ruff” time. Here are five reasons why doctors say it’s beneficial for older adults to own a pet:

1. Pets improve our moods.

Marvin McBride, MD, a geriatrician with the UNC Hospitals Geriatric Specialty Clinic, says pets provide a calming effect, especially for people who are agitated, unhappy or irritable.

Sherry Mendenhall, who oversees UNC REX Healthcare’s Fur Friends pet therapy program, agrees. “Interacting with a pet is a mood lifter, especially for patients [who are] here weeks or even months,” she says. “It is the highlight of their day, especially if they can’t be with their own pet.”

2. Pets can be good for our health.

Research has shown that having a pet may lower blood pressure and stress. “Studies are also showing that pet owners are healthier and have a decreased risk for heart disease and make fewer visits to the doctor,” says JoAnne Kroesen, a Fur Friends volunteer.

Kroesen says she’s seen therapy animals increase mental alertness and self-esteem. “Pets are all-loving and nonjudgmental, so they are always there for you no matter what mood you are in or how you look, smell or act,” she says.

3. Pets can help with memory problems.

For patients living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities who are experiencing memory challenges, therapy dogs can help recover happy memories, Dr. McBride says. That’s because while most people with dementia have problems with short-term memory, they often maintain their long-term memory for a while.

“They may not be able to tell you what they had for breakfast, but they can tell you things about their experiences in World War II or their high school football,” Dr. McBride says. “So, when people have positive memories of a family pet, interacting with a dog can help recover some of those warm, positive memories from a long time ago.”

Enjoying an animal’s attention can also help relieve stress or anxiety in patients with dementia. “If a senior with dementia is feeling anxious or agitated, a lot of times that’s because they’re confused,” he says. “They don’t know where they are, what they are supposed to be doing, and a lot of that is tied up in their memory-loss problems. That’s a very unsettling feeling.”

But by petting a dog, for example, “you no longer are focused on the fact that you don’t know who you are, where you are and what you need to be doing,” Dr. McBride says.

4. Pets might help change brain chemistry.

Dr. McBride say studies show interacting with pets increases the production of “feel-good hormones” such as endorphins and serotonin.

“Basically, when looking at the neurotransmitter expression of someone interacting with a pet, they are seeing an increase in oxytocin, which is something that you also see when moms nurse their babies and when people are in love,” Dr. McBride says. “It releases those feel-good hormones that are associated with typically positive experiences.”

5. Pets “communicate” in a different way.

For some patients, the only time they smile or light up is during a pet therapy visit.

“We have patients who won’t talk to their nurses, but they will talk to the dogs,” Mendenhall says. “At times, a nurse will suggest a pet therapy visit for a patient that hasn’t been verbal or even smiled, and they’re hoping this will change that. It’s incredible to see the dog walk into the room and the patient’s eyes light up and they smile. Some patients have cried and just hugged the dog.”

And the dog, of course, comes with no agenda, Mendenhall adds.

“It’s that one visitor in the room that’s not going to ask the patient any questions, poke or prod, or take vitals. The dog is there just to love and comfort them, and they know it. It’s truly special.”

Although pets provide many benefits to older adults, seniors should make sure they are physically and mentally able to care for a pet and handle the responsibility. Kroesen recommends seniors make alternative plans for their pets in case they become unable to care for them. This includes additional care such as pet walkers and sitters and, as a last resort, plans to put them in a new home.

Talk to a doctor if you think you or a loved one could benefit from a furry friend.

The REX Fur Friends program provides therapy dogs to visit patients at UNC REX Hospital. Tar Heal Paws is an animal-assisted activities and therapy program that delivers support and companionship to patients and visitors at UNC Hospitals, as well as assisted living facilities and nursing homes. To learn more, call (919) 784-2297 for REX Fur Friends or (984) 974-4793 for Tar Heal Paws.

Sherry Mendenhall is a volunteer coordinator at UNC REX Hospital and oversees the REX Fur Friends program. JoAnne Kroesen is a Fur Friends volunteer.