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Pets help older adults deal with health problems, but there are drawbacks

The benefits of having a pet are usually not lost on those who own one – whether it’s a dog or cat, or even a less common pet that comes with scales or feathers. And according to a new national poll, pets of all shapes and sizes can also help older adults cope with mental and physical health issues.

The findings from the National Poll on Healthy Aging – conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation – showed that 55 percent of adults ages 50 to 80 have a pet, and roughly three-quarters of these pet owners claim that their animals help reduce their stress, as well as give them a sense of purpose. Additionally, two-thirds of pet owners said that their pet helps them stay physically active.

We have long known that pets are a common and naturally occurring source of support,” says Cathleen Connell, Ph.D., a professor at the U-M School of Public Health. “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.”

Although the poll showed that owning a pet can be a positive influence in the lives of older adults, there are still some concerns. Some people may put their animals’ needs before their own health, and 18 percent said that having a pet puts a strain on their budget.

More activity, through dog walking or other aspects of pet care, is almost always a good thing for older adults,” explains Preeti Malani, M.D., the poll director who has training in caring for older adults. “But the risk of falls is real for many, and six percent of those in our poll said they had fallen or injured themselves due to a pet. At the same time, given the importance of pets to many people, the loss of a pet can deal a very real psychological blow that providers, family and friends should be attuned to.”

Malani believes that physicians and other health care providers should ask older adults about the role of pets in their lives.

“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,” says Mary Janevic, Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant research scientist at the U-M School of Public Health. “For people living on a fixed income, expenses related to health care 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.”

But despite these concerns, many poll respondents indicated the companionship and social connection benefits of pet ownership. Over half said that they own a pet specifically to have a companion, and even more said they let their pets sleep in bed with them. Sixty-five percent of pet owners also said that having a pet helps them connect with other people as well.

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

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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