Seniors who like animals should have opportunities for human-animal interaction 

Posted Jun 19, 2019 – Zazie Todd Ph.D

Recently, a 104-year old man from California was in the news because of his love for his rescue dog. After being turned down by several rescue organizations, Lionel’s Legacy allowed Milt Lessner to be a long-term foster for a senior dog, Layla. “We’re trying to stay in good health, both of us. So far, we’ve succeeded and we’re still alive,” 

In a nutshell, this story shows both the benefits and challenges for seniors wanting to have a pet. New research by Prof. Marie-José Enders-Sleggers and Dr. Karin Hediger, published in Anthrozoös, reviews the scientific literature on pet keeping for older adults. They find that pets can provide social interaction and protect against lonliness but a lot could be done to make life easier for seniors with pets. And just as for mellenials, housing that doesn’t allow pets can be an issue.

Being able to keep a pet should be possible at any age, Enders-Sleggers and Hediger write:

“The ability to interact with animals should be preserved throughout the course of life for those who enjoy interacting with animals, whether through pet ownership or other forms of human–animal interaction.”

Research has shown having a pet has several benefits for older adults, including higher levels of physical activity which in turn may lead to better health. As well, because pets need a routine of feeding, walking, etc., this gives older adults a daily routine. Pets can be protective against feelings of loneliness, provide emotional support, and give people something to talk about, perhaps a way to make friends or to chat to caregivers.

But not all studies show a benefit. One study of pet ownership in 60-64-year-olds found no health benefits, while another study found a link between dog ownership and depression, although the causal relationship is not clear. In particular, for this age group, which may be less mobile and more likely to have balance issues, pets (and their accoutrements such as pet beds and food bowls) can be a tripping hazard.

For people on a pension, the costs of pet ownership may be prohibitive, or they may elect to spend money on a pet at the expense of food or other items for themselves. Friends and family may try to discourage seniors from getting a pet due to concerns about who will take care of the animal if the person moves into an assisted living facility or passes away. There may also be concerns about getting infectious diseases from the pet, although the paper says that if older people are in good health they are not necessarily at any greater risk than others.

Because seniors with pets may be less likely to visit the doctor or agree to hospitalization if they worry about their pet, hospitals could have a plan to specifically ask about pets on intake and connect people with those who can help. For example, some animal shelters and charities will care for pets while someone is in a hospital.