Baby Boomers with pets tend to have better health

Recent stories about hurricane victims and their pets raised the issue of seniors and pets. About 60 percent of U.S. households have at least one dog, cat, bird or other companion animal. Many have more than one.

I checked with a local veterinarian about her experiences with pets and Baby Boomers. Veterinarian Tracy Wight reports that pets, particularly cats and dogs, help her older clients feel less lonely. They tell her it is like they have a special friend. Wight’s grandmother, who lived with her parents, created a special bond with a cat. She said she did not like cats but always managed to give Pele a special rub with the tip of her cane. Pele, a reclusive cat by nature, never hid from her and seemed to appreciate the attention. I looked at the research on pet ownership and health.

The data is clear that having a pet reduces blood pressure and even reduces the number of trips to see a physician. A 1999 study in the Journal of American Geriatrics demonstrates that seniors living on their own who have pets tend to have better physical health and mental well-being than those who don’t. They are more active, cope better with stress and have better overall health. They also reported shorter hospital stays and less health-care costs than non-pet owners.

One other study found that the daily activities of living, such as eating and grooming, declined less for those with a dog or cat than those who had no pet. The health benefits How does pet ownership keep the owner healthy? First, pets need walking, feeding, grooming, fresh water and fresh kitty litter, and they encourage lots of playing and petting. All of these activities require some action from owners. Even if it’s just getting up to let a dog out a few times a day or brushing a cat, any physical activity can benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep joints limber and flexible.

Consistently performing this kind of minor exercise can keep pet owners able to carry out the other normal activities of daily living. Again, Wight reported that many of her clients tell her that taking care of a pet is a reason to get up in the morning and often a reason to get dressed and go for a walk. Second, pets also aid seniors simply by providing some physical contact, affection and companionship.

A pet as a gift?

Should you get a pet for an older relative? Any pet purchase should involve the person who will be responsible for the pet. The last thing you need to do is to spring a cocker spaniel or a tabby cat on an unprepared person. You should discuss the value of a pet with the older person to be certain that it will meet his/her needs.

If they are interested, other issues need to be considered. First, does the person actually have room for a pet? Clearly a collie would be inappropriate for a relative living in a small apartment on the third floor. In this case, a cat might be a better fit. (All of this assumes that the property, if being rented, allows pets.)

Dogs and cats are better companions than birds or other pets because they require less maintenance. Although I don’t have space here to discuss all the breeds and how they relate to people, that should be considered. You may want a pit bull to protect your older relative or friend, but that strong, active breed may not be the right choice. Talk first to a veterinarian about breeds and their temperaments.

Second, does the future pet owner travel a lot, thus requiring someone else to care for his/her pet? Traveling is not a reason not to get a pet. It is just an issue that should be addressed beforehand. There are a lot of very reliable pet sitting services that will provide tender loving care almost as good as the owner’s.

Third, does the person who will be caring for the pet have the ability to do just that? A person in an apartment will have to be able to walk a dog many times a day. A great deal of bending and lifting is required with pet ownership. And, of course, pets create more housecleaning chores, too. Finally, depending on the age and the health of your older relative or friend, you might want to look for a previously owned but loved pet.

Housetraining a new puppy can put a real burden on the older person. Cats are easier in that regard. Any new pet should be seen by a veterinarian for a complete physical very early on or prior to adoption to avoid problems later.

Pets and beyond

If your older friend or relative is forced to move to an assisted-living facility, you should look for one that allows pets, has its own pets or allows visits by pet therapists. This is a rapidly growing service for our aging population because of the companionship value of a pet. See the following Web site as one example: .html.
Another site of interest is: needpets.html.
Thank you William Arnold, who is an Arizona State University professor and an expert on aging. He welcomes reader comments. You can reach him at
As you know Baby Boomers, I am a great animal lover. I hope all of you have a pet! If not…rescue one from your local shelter!

~The Baby Boomer Queen~