Why You Should Have a Pet Companion in Your Golden Years

A senior gentleman and his dog sit on the ground at a park.

By some measures, owning a pet may be as American as baseball and apple pie. Nearly 80 million U.S. households own a pet, according to the American Pet Products Association. Of those, 37 percent are baby boomers.

Janet Lovegrove of Kentwood, Michigan, was 50 when she adopted her cat, Ailish, from a local rescue. “I decided to adopt her when my [youngest] child went to the National Guard,” she says. “I didn’t want to be alone.”

Lovegrove worked at the time and knew a dog wouldn’t be the right fit for her. In the years that followed, Ailish was a constant source of support for Lovegrove, especially during a short stint of homelessness and period coping with a disability.

“If it wasn’t for [Ailish], I don’t know where I’d be,” says Lovegrove, now 58. “She was part of what helped me hold it together.”

It’s a story Andrea Stickland, veterinarian and owner of the Animal Medical Center of Chandler in Arizona, understands all too well. “I have a few clients who are barely mobile but taking [away] their pets would be like cutting life support,” she says.

Reasons Seniors Should Consider a Pet

While some older Americans may be concerned about their ability to take care of a pet as they age, a four-legged friend can provide health benefits and a social outlet in retirement.

Health benefits. The evidence supporting the benefits of pets isn’t all anecdotal in nature. A number of scientific studies have measured the positive impact pets can have on health and well-being. For example, Loyola University researchers found five to 15 minutes of animal therapy each day was associated with a 28 percent drop in the need for oral pain medication among patients recovering from joint-replacement surgery.

A 2013 study from the American Heart Association also shows that pets can help lower blood pressure through sitting and petting. “I know some physical therapists who like their clients to have medium-to-long hair cats so they brush them [as a form of therapy],” Stickland says.

There’s also the exercise factor. AARP contributor Barbara Hannah Grufferman credits her Brittany spaniel, Gunther, with helping her stay active. “Getting a dog that needs to be walked is a huge benefit,” says Grufferman, age 58.

Social benefits. Other seniors use their pets as a means to promote social interaction. Stickland says some of her clients have regular coffee dates with their pets in tow. Other seniors head to local dog parks to chat with fellow pet owners. Grufferman says going for walks with her dog is a great way to open up conversations with new people. “Dogs are like furry icebreakers,” she says.

Which Pets are Best for Seniors

For most seniors, a pet choice may come down to either a dog or a cat. For those who want a cat, the biggest consideration may be whether to get a short- or longhair breed. Longhair cats may require regular brushing and could shed more than those with shorter hair.

Dogs are more complicated, and Stickland recommends seniors stick with older animals. “Puppies are really challenging,” she says. “What my seniors need is a pet that is somewhat docile and had some training.”

Smaller dogs – such as the bichon frisé, havanese, shih tzu, corgi and poodle – are recommended over big dogs, since they are more portable, cheaper to feed and may be more accepted in an assisted living facility should that become necessary.

Grufferman also advises seniors nearing retirement to take a wait-and-see attitude before jumping into pet ownership. “You could decide to move closer to your kids. You could travel more,” she says. “You really need to see where your life is going.”

Other than cats and dogs, Stickland says bunnies can also make good senior pets. She cautions against ferrets as being too time-consuming and warns that other small pets may have sharp teeth that could easily puncture the thin skin of older seniors. Birds also have a lot of needs, and their long life spans may not be ideal for older pet owners.

Creating a Contingency Pet Plan

Although all owners should have a contingency plan in place, it’s particularly important for seniors. Some of Strickland’s older clients have had their attorneys send letters to be kept in the veterinary file that state who gets ownership should the senior become incapacitated or pass away. Others have less formal plans in place.

“Once you adopt a Crash’s cat, it’s always a Crash’s cat,” Lovegrove says, referencing Crash’s Landing, the rescue where she got Ailish. “If my children don’t want her [should something happen to me], they know they can take her back to Crash’s.”

Similarly, many rescues offer “seniors for seniors” programs which match senior adopters with older animals. These programs may feature a reduced adoption fee and offer a return guarantee to the rescue should the owner be unable to care for it in the future.

For those seeking a companion for their golden years, there are plenty of resources available to help find the perfect pet. It’s a decision Lovegrove, Grufferman and probably 80 million other American households are likely to say you won’t regret.

For more info: http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2015/06/19/why-you-should-have-a-pet-companion-in-your-golden-years