Pets Offer Many Benefits for People With Health Issues

A curled-up cat, a tail-wagging dog, a chirping parakeet, or even a serene goldfish may help older adults cope with mental and physical health issues, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, which is sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine.

In all, 55 percent of adults ages 50 to 80 have a pet, according to the findings—and more than half of those have multiple pets. More than three-quarters of pet owners say their animals reduce their stress, and nearly as many say pets give them a sense of purpose. Two-thirds of all pet owners, and 78 percent of dog owners, said their pet helps them be physically active.

For those who reported that their health was fair or poor, pet ownership appeared to offer even more benefits. More than 70 percent of these older adults said their pet helps them cope with physical or emotional symptoms, and 46 percent said their pets help take their mind off of pain.

“We have long known that pets are a common and naturally occurring source of support,” said Cathleen Connell, PhD. “Although the benefits of pets are significant, social connections and activities with friends and family are also key to quality of life across the lifespan. Helping older adults find low-cost ways to support pet ownership while not sacrificing other important relationships and priorities is an investment in overall mental and physical health.”

Companionship and social connection were positive side effects of pet ownership for many poll respondents.

In fact, more than half of those who owned pets said they did so specifically to have a companion. Sixty-five percent said having a pet helps connect them to other people, too.

“Relationships with pets tend to be less complicated than those with humans, and pets are often a source of great enjoyment,” said Mary Janevic, PhD, MPH. “They also provide older adults with a sense of being needed and loved.”

On the other hand, more than half of pet owners said that having a pet made it difficult to travel or enjoy activities outside the home. And, among those with health issues, approximately one in four said they put their pet’s needs ahead of their own health needs.

“Later life is often a time when people have more freedom to travel and a long list of things they want to do with their free time, and sometimes having a pet can get in the way,” said Janevic. “For people living on a fixed income, expenses related to healthcare for pets, and especially pets that have chronic health issues, can be a struggle. Older adults can also develop health problems or disabilities that make pet care difficult.”

For those who can’t own pets due to allergies, budget constraints, housing circumstances or schedules, there is often a need for volunteers at local animal shelters or opportunities to pet-sit for friends and family, the researchers said.

This article was adapted from information provided by Michigan Medicine–U-M.

TOP IMAGE: AdobeStock/AfricaStudio

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