By Laura Vorreyer
It goes without saying how much people love their dogs and cats. I myself practically wrote an entire book proclaiming my undying love for my own dog, Dexter. Here in the United States, household pets are considered much more than just owned property. In fact, pets are thought of as family members and even referred to as “furry children.” I even heard the term “grand-dogger” for the first time. This is, of course, your kid’s furry child, who you might baby-sit, much like a human child, but even more happily so, in some cases. (All participants in my research asked to remain anonymous.)
While it might be difficult to convince non-believers that the love between people and their pets is like that of between a child and a parent, the science behind it doesn’t lie. Scientists have long studied the phenomena that takes place between people and their pets and have recently revealed that oxytocin, the feel-good chemical, is released into the brain when we gaze into our pets’ eyes. So, it comes as no surprise that there is an undeniably special bond between people and their pets and unexpected benefits of pet ownership to seniors that goes beyond even just feeling good.
Considering they are family, it’s no wonder pets can mean so much to senior citizens. Senior citizens who find themselves living alone can be especially vulnerable to loneliness and anxiety. Having a furry friend has been proven to reduce anxiety and keep loneliness at bay. I know from personal experience that having Dexter stare lovingly at me all day is particularly wonderful, unless he’s licking himself, in which case, it’s not so wonderful.
Besides giving us all the feels, pet ownership leads to more active senior citizens. In fact, a 2017 Swedish study found that senior citizens who owned dogs walked an average of 22 minutes more per day than those that did not. This added exercise that the dog provides lowers the risk of heart disease and increases the chance for longevity in their humans. Not only does owning a dog help you live longer, it also has the potential of helping you live a healthier lifestyle.
As a byproduct of that active lifestyle, pet ownership in senior citizens helps their social life. My interview group of seniors reported having more fulfilling interactions with neighbors and friends because their pets bring them together. Many of my neighbors suggested that the very way they met their neighbors was while walking their dogs or when the dogs wanted to meet each other. Who can deny an eager dog at the end of a leash wanting to play with another dog?
Pet-induced social interaction can lead to decreased depression and can have a positive impact on seniors who might otherwise feel lost and alone. My neighbor, Joe, a widower living on his own, tells me his two boys (chocolate labs, Buster and Barkley) keep him sane, keep him active and help him to “meet ladies.”
Besides helping them to meet people, the seniors I spoke to could not say enough about how much their pets give to them; companionship, purpose and cuddles. Isn’t it nice to know you have someone waiting for you when you get home? Your furry friend is constantly there to cuddle, snuggle and give you all the unconditional love that is needed. Looking into those child-like eyes not only can lower depression, but it’s also been proven that stroking our pets brings a sense of calm and decreases stress. Just a few minutes of petting has been shown to decrease blood pressure and lower the pulse rate for us and our dog or cat. It seems that the relationships we have with our pets is symbiotic and mutually beneficial.
Given that the benefits to seniors having pets is multi-fold, I am actually surprised that more seniors don’t have pets. Perhaps if they knew of all the benefits, they would be more likely to adopt a pet. In fact, with all the available pets in shelters and rescues, you would think more of an effort would be made to pair them up.
So, let’s consider this a call to action. Do you know a senior who might benefit from having a pet? How about facilitating them rescuing an animal? Who knows? It could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, for both of them.
Laura Vorreyer pioneered the dog-walking industry in Hollywood over 15 years ago and is the author of the book and audiobook, “The Pet Sitter’s Tale.” She is the owner of the pet care company Your Dog’s Best Friend, a premier dog-walking and pet-sitting business in Los Angeles. Laura has taught pet-sitting and dog-walking classes in Los Angeles and is also a passionate advocate for animal rights. She remains dedicated to pet rescue.