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Fido can be your health partner

Created date

November 7th, 2016
Senior couple with dog

Besides making us feel good and giving us a living creature to care for, animals can be a real boon to our health.

Research shows about 50% of older adults have at least one pet. Certainly having a pet can make you feel good, but did you know that having a four-legged—or in some cases, a two-winged—friend might in fact be good for you?

Animals as health partners is not a new concept. As early as the 1700s, animals were included as part of therapy for patients with mental illnesses. This practice persisted until the early 1900s, when fears developed about the spread of infection.

In more recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in ways animals can help people. There’s even a term for it—animal-assisted intervention (AAI). These interventions encompass animal-assisted education, programs, and activities aimed at improving health or functioning. 

The most common AAI animal in the U.S. is man’s best friend. Estimates show that there are almost 400,000 service dogs in this country alone. Almost all of us have seen a service dog helping someone go about their day. Service dogs have also been trained to alert people with diabetes that their blood sugar is dangerously high or low. And because dogs have sensory abilities that go far beyond ours, studies show they can detect early warning signs of seizures. 

Service dogs don’t account for all AAI animals, of course. There are many, including dogs, cats, monkeys, and horses (usually miniature ones) that make regular visits to residents of assisted living, rehabilitation, and long-term care facilities. Some residents even have a fellow resident’s pet to care for, such as a cat or bird. 

Measurable results

Besides making us feel good and giving us a living creature to care for, can animals be a real boon to our health? The science says yes. Research shows that people with pets tend to have lower blood pressure when faced with stressful situations. As far as heart health, a set of studies showed pet owners who had been hospitalized with congestive heart failure were able to walk twice as far as nonpet owners who had been hospitalized for the same reason. In addition, one-year survival rates have been shown to be higher for pet owners who have had heart attacks.

Mental health benefits are a little harder to measure because results tend to be based on questionnaires and surveys, but there is some indication that having a pet can decrease anxiety and alleviate feelings of loneliness. While study results do not indicate that pets can help cognition or prevent memory loss, there is evidence they can decrease delirium-related agitation in dementia patients and stimulate conversation and interaction among residents in long-term care.

Before you run out to adopt or buy a pet, please make sure you can handle the daily responsibilities and have enough money in your budget and the resources to cover the expenses, especially veterinary costs. As a lifelong dog person and current owner of a German shepherd, I can share with you that the investment and effort are well worth it. Dogs truly are woman and man’s best friend! Remember that pet ownership may limit where you can live. And of course, find one you aren’t allergic to.

Matt Narrett, M.D., is chief medical officer for Erickson Living and leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.