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The Pet Effect and senior health and wellness

You have likely heard the long list of benefits seniors can reap by having and caring for a pet – especially if they are living alone. Dogs help get seniors out of the house for walks and regular activity and both dogs and cats can provide purpose, companionship and affection. (Not to mention entertainment!) But it goes deeper than the obvious and there is more and more science to back up the claims that pets are good for our health, wellbeing and longevity.

The American Heart Association has stated that living with a pet (especially a dog) has found to be associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and can help lower stress, blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity. Also, a study of 100 Medicare patience revealed that people with pets visit the doctor 21% less often, use less medicine and recover faster from surgery and illness.

And the benefits aren’t just physical, there are mental health benefits as well. Seniors who own a dog have a lower incidence of depression and, in general, have higher mental health scores than those without pets. According to Joseph Schwerdt, Ft. Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel, 90% of seniors polled say they are less lonely and much happier since adopting an animal.

Cats can also offer great benefits as pets for seniors, “Cats are helpful for companionship without affecting the limited mobility some of the seniors have. We are finding that some of the housing that seniors are in, like apartments and condos, are more open to cats than dogs,” says Ms. Kurowski, the Pets for the Elderly Foundation general manager. “Cats are easy to hold on your lap and so many people, especially those who live alone, need the touch and cuddling provided by cats who need to be cuddled.”

Fish are next on the possible pet list for seniors. Caring for a small aquarium is not only less daily, physical maintenance (although still requires regular cleaning and care) but boasts hours of calming, tranquil benefits for those that enjoy watching fish glide through their habitat. They also don’t come with many of the drawbacks of some of the friskier pets; no biting, scratching, midnight pees, separation anxiety, barking, meowing and minimal if any, vet care required. And although you CAN spend a small fortune setting up an aquarium you don’t HAVE to. Seniors can enjoy caring for, feeding, talking to and watching fish calmly careen through the water on a tiny little budget, if desired.

Sceptical as to whether fish really are just as effective as pets for seniors compared to dogs, cats and similar critters, in aiding in better health and wellness? A recently study looked into “the pet effect” on a group whose average age was 71, and had some very promising results. After only 8 weeks of caring for their new “pets” the participants showed greater decreases in levels of depression than the control group, had improved levels of cognitive functioning and had increases in the mental component on the quality of life scale. However, the pets, in this case weren’t cats, dogs or even fish – they were crickets.


Yes, you read that right, crickets.


“The 46 subjects in the insect group were each given a cage containing two female and three male oriental garden crickets. The bugs came with food, and an instruction manual. The new pet owners were given talks on cricket husbandry and on making healthy lifestyle choices. They were also telephoned once a week to see how things were going.” Hal Herzog Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today, “Theories about why pets might improve the health and happiness of their owners focus on factors such mutual attachment (“the bond”), social support, or increases in exercise. But crickets do not provide the warm and fuzzies of a kitten or the social support of a beloved dog. Neither do cricket owners take their pets for walks or play Frisbee with them.  Yet the size of the impact crickets had on the [subjects’] mental health was about the same seen in studies of dog owners.”

So, if you were on the fence before on whether you should talk to the seniors in your family about getting a pet, be it a cat, dog, fish, crickets, or literally ANYTHING, perhaps these studies can help with that discussion. Let us know in the comments if the seniors in your life have benefited from a pet, or perhaps even an uncommon pet choice! We’d love to hear your stories!


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