Dear Doctor: Our granddad went through a really hard time after our grandmother died last summer. He turned into a hermit. Now he’s set on getting a dog, which our mom thinks is a bad idea because of all the extra work. But my brothers and I think a pet will help him be active and make him feel better. Who’s right?
Dear Reader: We’re sorry to learn of your grandmother’s passing and of your grandfather’s struggles without her. The loss of a spouse can be devastating. It’s not unusual for people to deal with grief by withdrawing from the world, a reaction that can all too easily become an ongoing habit.
When it comes to sharing a home with a dog, both your mom and you kids have valid points. There is no question that properly caring for a dog takes time and effort, to say nothing of money for food, pet supplies and the inevitable vet bills. But you and your brothers have a persuasive body of research on your side. A number of studies have linked pet ownership to a range of physical and psychological benefits. These include a positive effect on stress, blood pressure, depression and loneliness, to name just a few.
Now the results of a new study are shedding light on the benefits of pet ownership for older adults. In response to a poll conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, pet owners reported that the many challenges of aging are made easier due to the pets in their lives. Researchers sent the online poll to about 2,000 randomly selected adults between the ages of 50 and 80, and about 65 percent of the group completed the poll.
More than half of all respondents reported owning a pet, and 55 percent of those said they had two or more pets in their homes. The majority of those pets (68 percent) were dogs. Almost half of respondents lived with cats and 16 percent reported having a small pet such as a hamster, bird or fish.
More than three-quarters of the pet owners said their animal companions eased stress, kept them active and helped them to connect with people. The positive effects of pet ownership were particularly evident among those who rated their own physical health as poor or fair. Seventy percent of those reported that the presence of their pets helped them cope with the physical and emotional symptoms of illness, and almost half said their pets helped distract them from physical pain. Close to 90 percent of all pet owners said that their animals helped them to enjoy life and made them feel loved.
At the same time, it’s important be clear-eyed about the challenges of pet ownership. About 20 percent admitted to financial pressures due to pets. And 80 percent reported that they had help in caring for their animals, which means you and your mom may have to pitch in if your grandfather does get his dog.
The findings from this poll should give your mom, you kids and your grandfather plenty to consider as the dog decision gets made.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.