Senior Pet Therapy – The Health Benefits of Owning a Pet

While the memories of a cherished childhood pet can bring comfort to an aging person, even more benefits come from maintaining that human-animal bond throughout life. Even more than the health benefits of senior pet therapy, the right pet serves as a trusted confidant, coach, and counselor.

For seniors who are not able to own a pet, there are a number of options: You can offer to walk a neighbor’s dog, cat sit for the weekend, or volunteer at a local shelter. We don’t have to be full-time pet owners to benefit from animal companions’ presence in our lives.

“Senior citizens can experience a greater quality of life, whether it be from the ownership of a pet or simply from periodic visits with a furry friend,” says Dr. Lisa MacKay of the Veterinary Wellness Center of New Haven. “The human-animal bond is evident and can be witnessed in the elderly…There is overwhelming evidence that people are living longer, more productive lives because of their pets.”

1. Pets as Social Directors

One of the best-known benefits of pet ownership—which many of us learned as children—is the emotional support a pet provides. And, as we age—no matter how well and actively we do so—we lose important people and relationships. A cat or a dog, or whatever pet we choose, can provide much-needed love, support, and continuity.

An AARP Bulletin poll of people over 50 found that companionship was the top reason that 71% of respondents aged 65 and older chose to get a pet. Among that 71%, dogs (38%) and cats (24%) were the most popular, along with birds (3%), reptiles (2%), and others (4%).

In addition to providing companionship, owning a pet can be a real boost to your social life. Simply needing to walk your dog both gets you outside and gives you the perfect conversation-starter. “Dog owners were five times as likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than pet owners overall,” according to another recent study that confirmed that owning a pet helps you meet new people.

Your pet can give you an excuse to talk with someone you normally wouldn’t and to make new connections. Plus, the more active your pet is, the more active your social life may become. Perhaps that accidental meeting while exercising in the park will lead to dates both for you and your four-legged friend.

2. Pets as Personal Trainers

In addition to the emotional benefits, according to the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), owning a pet can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. The companionship of a pet also can increase an active senior’s opportunities for outdoor activities and exercise.

Pets are particularly good at motivating their owners to continue to keep going. Plus, if your goal is to commit to tracking your progress with a fitness wearable or a fitness program, you may find your pet to be a more tolerable accountability buddy than a neighbor or close relative.

An effective personal trainer introduces variety into your routines to keep you engaged and progressing. While he can’t provide specific corrections, your pet certainly can help keep things lively. Both of you can share in the benefits of regular exercise, which may include achieving a healthy weight and helping to maintain flexibility and good balance.

Not sure where to start? According to the AARP Bulletin poll, among those aged 65 and older:

  • 61% walk with their dog to maintain or improve their fitness
  • 26% regularly play catch—whether with a ball or a Frisbee
  • 33% exercise with their dogs more than once a day

Of those polled, 29% claim to work out more now that they have a dog. “Animals can spark the interest of seniors who may have otherwise lost interest in activities that they used to enjoy,” says Dr. MacKay. “Companion animals can be used for various types of therapy and in most cases can reduce anxiety in humans.”

3. Pet Therapy for Seniors

“There is something quite magical that happens when a Lab enters a nursing home,” says Penny Gray. “Residents who are mostly unresponsive to family visits just come alive.”

Gray, who is owner/trainer of CaveInn Labradors in North Central Iowa, knows from personal experience. Even as her Mom progresses through dementia and all that that implies, “The very best thing I’ve learned I can do is not really anything ‘I can do.’ It is simply to show up with our Boy Wonder ‘Robin.’ He is now a senior himself but still a stunning black Lab.”

“There is a magnetic effect as walkers and wheelchairs make their way to where Robin sits beside Mom. In his unspoken conversation with each of them, he reminds them of being a child on the farm, raising their own kids with a dog that meant the world to them.”

4. The Benefits of Senior Pet Therapy

In addition to the warm feelings, a growing body of research supports the therapeutic value of pet ownership for seniors with and without specific health challenges. The health benefits of owning a pet are incredible. Owners of pets have been shown to have higher one-year survival rates after heart attacks, and dog ownership, specifically, may contribute to reducing cardiovascular disease risk.

As Gray says, “There is hardly a way to describe how the presence of a therapy dog draws out the positive emotions that often are suppressed for those who are confined to a wheelchair. In the time they are with a canine companion, they are free.”

“I’ve witnessed such heartwarming moments,” says Gray, “that, even if Mom will forget we have been there the moment we walk away, I know her soul is alive and she felt happiness.

Love animals but can’t have one? Read more about how to volunteer your time to a local shelter or animal hospital. For more inspiring videos, free caregiving tips and active aging resources, sign up for updates with your email using the box on the right of this article.

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26 thoughts on “Senior Pet Therapy – The Health Benefits of Owning a Pet

  1. Bill
    March 8, 2017 at 1:35 am

    Kenneth you are a horrible person.

  2. Don
    March 10, 2017 at 1:42 am

    A dog is a whole lot of love, with a tail.

  3. Scott
    March 10, 2017 at 11:45 pm

    Bill, you need a pet very soon. One that will help your sour disposition. Have a nice day. Kenneth, I hope you have a pet of your own to help your tolerate Bill. Me? I love my grand-dog, Bear. He is a 7 year old, 93 pound golden retriever and is everything the doctor ordered. We exercise and play together and even go for rides in the car. And if Bill and I were neighbors, Bear could even help Bill make improvements. Have a nice day everyone.

  4. Michael Adkins
    March 11, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    How true! I HAVE A Jack Russell that needs walked twice a day and I have lost over 16 pounds and not pre diabetes any more. My arthritis symptoms in my feet are relieved as I walk Sarah and have more limber body and improved balance. Over the years I have lost close friends but I have my companion dog to keep me from being lonely. When I have a bad day this four leg child demands that I get off my butt and play with her and a lot of times I forget the pain as this dogs makes me laugh. I would not take a million bucks four her and this dogs makes me stay healthy so I can live to take care of her. Sarah is only 6 and these Jack Russell Dogs live around 16 years so I want to make sure that her needs are taken care of when her time to walk the rainbow bridge comes. I thank God that this dog came into my life and it is a honor to take care of her and in her own little way she takes care of me!

  5. Marie
    March 14, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with the content of this article. Jake, my Shih Tzu, wakes me up and makes me get out of bed earlier than I used to do without him. We go on walks and he loves to ride in the car. Loves to play and keeps me moving all day. So happy to have my buddy. Jake.

  6. Chencha
    March 14, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    The more I deal with people, the more I love animals.

  7. Sandy S.
    March 17, 2017 at 11:26 pm

    Companion animals are AMAZING, especially when you adopt a rescued dog or cat! And then you have the added joy of knowing you’ve saved a animal from life in a shelter or possible euthanasia. It does wonders for your heart and soul!

    Side note, to the author of this article… I know you didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but it would be more compassionate if, instead of saying “owning a pet” and “own a pet”, you would say “having a pet” and “have a pet”. They are our special companions, not our property we own. ❤️

  8. GiGi
    March 18, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    I’ve had six collies and I could not imagine my life without them. Each one has given me so much happiness that I’m sure any animal will improve ones life. My current boy wakes me up every morning, brings me my robe, without being asked, waits for me, walks to the alarm panel & waits again, then goes to the yard door for me to let him out, while I make his breakfast. I’m not sure who has who trained. He goes to bed when I tell him, not like my children used to do. Whenever someone comes near the house he runs to get me & pulls my arm to get up. These are the best animals to have with children. They take ownership of the children & regardless of what the child does, I’ve never heard a noise from any one of them. Get a pet, it will change your life for the better.

  9. b man
    March 18, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    I love all cats and dogs god bless them all

  10. r n c
    March 18, 2017 at 11:35 pm

    How could you not love a dog or cat? They radiate love like the sun radiates heat. Just bask in it and thank god for their existence.

  11. Edgar
    March 19, 2017 at 8:13 am

    My dog Chase came into my life when my wife passed away in 2011…Chase is a tan lab and is a special dog, he has diabetes and is blind but I would have him no other way. He gives me unconditional love and since I have remarried he now has a mom who he offers unconditional love.

  12. richard Pena
    March 21, 2017 at 10:55 pm

    my wife does not care for animals dogs or cats. I do not know how to convince her that we need a pet. I have a double yellow head parrot, that I have had for 30 yrs. but I have to keep him outside.

  13. Mary/Mar 22, 2017
    March 21, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    I love both of our pomeranians. My female is a bundle of joy. She loves all three of us. She has been so good for our 11 year old male Pom. He runs, and jumps around like a puppy. Before she came into our lives he was prone to just lay around. Now they play together and enjoy each other’s company.

    dogs are wonderful. Wouldn’t know what to do without one.

  14. lynn holmes holmes
    March 23, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    The greatest joy in our life is Charlie , lhasa apso. He is 8 years old and is trained as a therapy dog and is also my service dog. He is equally attached to my husband and me. He keeps us on track when he needs to be fed 6am, 11am, 2pm and snacks at 4pm and 7pm. It really keeps us on our toes and provides a purpose for us. There is so much joy having him in our life that we dread the day he won’t be here with us. I firmly believe that if someone is not comfortable having a pet….they shouldn’t, but maybe a visit to the animal shelter to help out with walks, feedings etc will allow that person to feel involved without having to “explain” to his “friends” why he doesn’t want an animal. There is a place in this world for everyone, even if you donate money to a shelter, you are helping out animals. Thank you in advance for anything you can do

  15. Rob Caveney
    March 24, 2017 at 1:21 am

    When my seven year old Golden Retriever died unexpectedly, at the vets office, it was the single worst event in my life. The sadness was overwhelming and the reason I find it difficult to entertain the thought of having another one. To loose another one, at any age, would be too much to bear.

  16. David
    March 29, 2017 at 1:07 am

    I’ve had dogs all my life, but my 4 year old, one eyed McNab IS my life now. She’s a great dog, goes everywhere with me and it makes me feel really good when people light up when they see her. She’s spectacular and I can’t imagine life without her.

  17. David
    March 29, 2017 at 1:13 am

    Richard and Rob- Please go adopt or rescue a dog. There’s so many that need your help and it would be do good for you. It’s very hard losing a dog, but it’s even harder living without one. I think I’ve loved every dog more each time ?? ALL GODS CREATURES !!

  18. Kim
    March 30, 2017 at 2:10 am

    i was 57 when I got my first pet, an 8 week old orange tabby. He is by far the cheapest therapy I’ve ever had. He loves routine and I know who really is in charge. Spoiled to the max, he is the love of my life.

  19. JEAN
    April 21, 2017 at 12:23 pm


  20. Mary Cosmahjohnson
    April 21, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    I am so happy to see so many pet lovers.

    I am almost 80 yrs old and i got my first dog when i was 7 yrs old, a Eskimo spitz. Unfortunately she was poisoned when she was only 9 months. After my beautiful solid white little lady passed, there were a series of breeds, colors, all adorable, i loved each one dearly.

    There has never been a year passed that i did not have a dog, sometimes 2or3 at a time.

    Love cats too, had a few too but my heart belongs to a dog, thinking back, i have had so many different breeds, be hardpressed to pick a favorite.

    I have a pekenease/shiz tzu he was abused at 3 months he has been my loving companion now for 10years. When i get to heaven, my wonderful precious puppies will meet me as i believe that our Lord does indeed have a Rainbow room, where they go at the end of life on earth, i will be surrounded by love from our heavenly Father, and my darling babies.

    God bless all of you and your loving pets

  21. judy
    April 22, 2017 at 8:10 am

    When my 14-year-old golden retriever died, he took a part of my heart with him. I knew I had to have another dog because I couldn’t quit mourning. That’s when Ben, a cattle dog, came into my life. He is so different from Mike but has made his own place in my heart. He has so much energy that he keeps me going. He is so sweet and loving and so protective. When we go on the nature trails, he watches other people to see that they have no nefarious intentions and trust me to let him know. In the evening he lays on my lap, well mostly on my lap, and he makes me LAUGH. I still miss my big Mike, but I feel like he sent me Ben to help fill the terrible void.

  22. Aprilmuir
    April 22, 2017 at 11:31 pm

    I never had a dog growing up but when I married my husband we wanted to rescue a puppy from the pound we found a fifty pound terrier and we named her sandy she was the love of our life, when she passed we were just devastated,it took a very long time for the pain to subside,but after 6 months we found another pup to love and the love she gives us is amazing,I’m sure when he passes the pain will be just as bad,but I will never again In my Iifetime be without the constant unconditional love a dog give.DOGS RULE.!

  23. Matt
    April 25, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    When i was a kid, my mom brought home a puppy to our family cabin. My dad wanted to know why she got the dog. The 2 acre yard at the cabin had to be mowed. Mom found a farmer to mow the yard and the farmer told her that he would give here a dog if he paid for mowing the weeds. My dad thought that puppy was a waste. As time went on, mom thought that dad loved the dog more than her.

    My wife and my family of six got a puppy for the kids for Christmas. Our black lab, “Super Sonic Jet,” was some much fun! We always took Jet for a long walk. When Jet was 7 years old I had a major stroke. I was in the hospital for 17 days. When I left the hospital and got home we opened our door and I swear thar Jet jumped 6 feet high to see me! Every loved our dog! Even our friends loved Jet. Jet is gone now, but she was one of my best friends! Now we two labs. They keep me alive (well my wife does more).

    We will always have a dog!!! Go dog! Go!

  24. Marilynn
    April 27, 2017 at 8:51 am

    My husband had suffered a stroke and was extremely depressed. The doctors were not optimistic about his recovery. During his rehab time, we started taking care of my aunt’s dog while she went on vacation. I immediately notice the change in my husbands emotional state. But owning “a pet” was out of the question because we were gone a lot to therapy sessions, etc. However, we started becoming official pet sitters for friends. Then someone told us about the “service dog” program, and so we applied to get a service dog. It is now 18 years later, and my husband is now with his second service animal and going strong. Although Shilo knows 90 commands, my husband says her main job is to attract “chicks”. She does that job very well.

  25. Steve
    June 5, 2017 at 7:59 am

    I have four rabbits, all adopted from shelters. One of my rabbits, Ryan, was crippled by the vet who gave him the wrong medicine and dosage. Ryan was only a little more than a year old. They wanted me to put him to sleep. He was eating, crawled to be close to me and would just look at me with those big brown eyes. I refused to end his life for my convenience. I took him to a specialized animal hospital operated by the University of Florida. I found a great Doctor. While Ryan has neurological damage, his body has begun to repair some it. He has a large pen (12 ft X 6 ft) in my room. He now runs and plays. When I pick him up, and hold him against me, his body just goes limp. In the “dark months” after first vet hurt him, we were not sure he would live. After I gave him his medicine, I would always recline the chair back and put him on my chest covered with a light blanket. With my arms around him, he would fall asleep. Now that he is so much better, he still likes this “bonding”. Even the doctors have remarked several times how much he loves me. I have thanked God for the privilege of caring for Ryan.

  26. dino run
    December 28, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    Your article is very good and helpful. This will be an article worth reference and learning. Thanks. dino run

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