How Pets Help Senior Citizens

"Nick has brought a lot of love into my life," says Mary Miller, a retired schoolteacher from Phoenix, Ariz. "Even if I'm having a really bad day, I always feel better after a few minutes of snuggling on the sofa with Nick."

Mary's husband, Ed, isn't a bit jealous. Rather, he agrees with her assessment. "Having Nick around has definitely livened up our home life," says the 66-year-old retired electrical contractor.

Nick is a 3-year-old English springer spaniel the Millers adopted when his first owners embarked on an around-the-world tour. Since then, Nick has become part of the Miller family.

There are hundreds of thousands of other senior citizens across the country who feel the same way about their pets. But the scientific community has also started weighing in on the subject – and its praise almost equals that of the owners.

Animals Provide Family and Friendship

"Pets are an important form of social contact," says Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for Human-Animal Bond at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University. "For older people who may be less mobile and who have few or limited companions, animals provide family and friendship, something to care for and to be recognized by."

Everyone, young and old, he says, has a real need to nurture something or someone. "This need to nurture does not stop when our children are grown or are no longer babies, or when our grandchildren are grown," Beck says. "The nice thing about a pet is that she may grow older, but she will never grow up. She will always be your baby."

Studies Show Pets Boost Physical Health

A growing number of researchers believe that pets also help boost physical health. Over the last two decades, studies have linked pet ownership with increased chances of survival after a heart attack and reducing blood pressure. Others have shown that pets can sometimes help people with Alzheimer's.

According to Dr. Lynette Hart, associate professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, "Studies have shown that Alzheimer's patients have fewer anxious outbursts if there is an animal in the home. Caregivers also feel less burdened when there is a pet, particularly if it is a cat, which generally requires less care than a dog." Alzheimer's patients who were attached to their pets also had fewer reported mood disorders, Hart adds.

Another group of researchers, at Purdue, studied the effects of tropical fish on Alzheimer's patients. "Patients who were exposed to the fish tanks appeared to be more relaxed and ate up to 21 percent more food than they had before the introduction of the fish tanks. The tanks of colorful, gliding fish often held patients' attention for up to 30 minutes, a relatively long time for many Alzheimer's patients," the study concluded.

Pets Help With Stress

According to Dr. Judith M. Siegel, professor of Public Health at UCLA, seniors who own pets typically cope better with stressful life events without entering the healthcare system. Several years ago, Siegel and her colleagues studied nearly 1,000 non-institutionalized older adult Medicare patients. She found that those who owned pets appeared to experience less distress and required fewer visits to their physicians than non-owners.

All this is not to say that pet ownership should be seen as a universal panacea. While a pet might be helpful in preventing someone's blood pressure from going up, Beck says, it is not a "cure" for hypertension.

The bottom line is that pets are like "emotional vitamins." If you feel better psychologically and emotionally, every system in your body is going to function more efficiently. The 65-plus population, particularly vulnerable to loneliness and stress-related diseases, can reap enormous benefits from pet companionship.