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Pets and Older Adults: Benefits & Risks

Are pets and older adults a good match? The answer depends on whom you ask.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 50 percent of U.S. households have at least one dog and 34 percent have at least one cat.

The American Pet Products Association reports that $95.7 billion was spent on pets in the United States in 2019, up from $53.33 billion in 2012. Pets are serious business in our country, but they are not for everybody.

Some studies have shown that positive interactions between people and animals can lower blood pressure, decrease feelings of loneliness and depression, and reduce stress levels.

Animals can provide companionship for older adults who may have reduced social contacts. Dogs offer their owners opportunities for exercise and may help them feel safer by alerting them to visitors or changes in the environment.

The routine of caring for a pet may provide a reason for some people to get out of bed in the morning and help provide structure to each day.

But owning a pet may be detrimental to an older adult instead of beneficial.

The cost of providing food and medical care for a pet can be prohibitive for older adults on fixed incomes. Individuals who have physical limitations may not be able to take Fido for walks or clean Fluffy’s litter box, resulting in unsanitary conditions.

An additional consideration is an increased risk of falls. The Centers for Disease Control analyzed emergency room data from 2001-2006 related to falls, and found that an average of 86,629 annual falls involved cats and dogs. With older adults, falls and resulting fractures often lead to additional complications and an increased mortality rate. The risk of falls should be taken seriously.

Older adults also should think about plans for their pet in case an extended hospitalization or stay in a long-term care facility becomes necessary. If they live alone, are there family members or friends who would be available to temporarily care for the pet, either in their own home or by visiting the owner’s home on a routine basis?

If not, check with a veterinarian to find out about other services which are available to provide temporary care for a pet.

Options may include short-term kennel boarding or in-home visits from a certified, bonded, professional pet sitter. Contact the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters for a sitter in your area.

Considering a move to a senior community or personal care home, and want to take your pet with you? Retirement communities and care facilities have different policies about pets. Places which allow pets may require a deposit that can be either refundable or nonrefundable.

There may be limitations on the type, size and number of pets allowed. An individual’s ability to care for the pet will be evaluated, and current veterinary records will be requested.

Is a pet accustomed to being indoors or out? The use of a leash when not in the owner’s room or apartment may be another requirement. If a pet would not be allowed to move into a residential/care community, visitation may be an option. Ask about specific pet policies when exploring various residential choices.

Nonprofit organizations are springing up around the country to help older adults care for their pets, providing services including assistance with vet bills, temporary foster care, actual daily physical care, spay/neuter services and pet transportation.

For older adults considering adopting a pet for the first time, realistic discussion with family members and animal care professionals is essential to prevent surprises which may be detrimental both to the individual and the potential pet candidate.

Should older adults own pets?  Megan Mueller, co-director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, states that more appropriate questions include “who are pets good for, under what circumstances, and is it the right match between the person and the pet?” 

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN