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Pet ownership can be rewarding and therapeutic for older adults. Caring for an animal can bring joy, comfort, and companionship—which help relieve stress and improve mental well-being.

Building a relationship and being responsible for meeting a pet’s needs also creates a sense of purpose and provides structure to a daily routine. Here’s a look at the many benefits of caring for a pet.

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Pets Boost Mental Wellness

A companion animal is someone to spend time with, talk to, nurture, and love. Dogs and cats often give reciprocal affection, which is comforting—especially for those who might live alone.

Research shows that caring for a pet boosts mental wellness. An Aging and Mental Health Journal study involving 14 community-dwelling older adults aged 65 and over found that pet ownership provided companionship, fostered a sense of purpose and meaning, reduced loneliness, and increased socialization.

“Petting and holding an animal allows you to appreciate the beauty of nature,” explained Dr. Jeremy Barron, M.D., medical director of the Beacham Center for Geriatric Medicine at Johns Hopkins. “It’s relaxing and transcendental.”

Johns Hopkins reported that “84% of post-traumatic stress disorder patients paired with a service dog reported a significant reduction in symptoms, and 40% were able to decrease their medications.”

A simple tail wag, soft purr, or a spin on a wheel can trigger spontaneous smiles and happiness that lift spirits and help combat anxiety and depression.

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Pets Improve Physical Wellness

Other studies show that petting or stroking a cat or dog relieves stress, which in turn can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and improve heart health.

A pair of American Heart Association studies concluded that “dog ownership was associated with a 33% lower risk of death for heart attack survivors living alone and 27% reduced risk of death for stroke survivors living alone, compared to people who did not own a dog.”

Furthermore, walking a dog provides physical exercise and an opportunity to get outside, enjoy fresh air, and soak up natural Vitamin D from the sun. Regular exercise can also improve your mood.

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Benefits of Adopting a Pet

The multiple rewards of adopting a pet versus buying one from a store or breeder are priceless. Above all, adoption saves a shelter animal’s life. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), “each year, approximately 920,000 shelter animals are euthanized (390,000 dogs and 530,000 cats).”

Welcoming a shelter animal into your home means you’re giving a homeless animal companionship, comfort, and love. Millions of animals enter shelters each year. Adopting one frees up shelter space for another animal.

Plus, many shelter animals are already housetrained, are spayed/neutered, have received first vaccinations, and have received health and behavioral screenings. If you adopt an older, more mature animal, most are used to living with people, and you’re giving them a second chance to be part of a loving home.

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Dog vs. Cat Ownership

Both cats and dogs can be loving companions. If you’re unsure what kind of furry family member you want, these comparisons might help you decide.

More Americans have dogs than cats. According to 2017-2018 pet ownership statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, 38.4% of households have dogs, and 25.4% have cats.

Dogs typically require more time and attention than cats. For optimal health, dogs need plenty of exercise—around two to three walks per day. They also need to go outside to go to the bathroom, and you’ll have to clean up their waste.

Depending on size and breed, many dogs also require a larger amount of living space. Dogs are more social than cats. Many pooches love to initiate playing, cuddling, and other forms of human interaction. Because they go outdoors, dogs need their paws cleaned and monthly baths.

Cats are independent, clean themselves, and don’t take up a lot of physical space. They use the bathroom in a litter box that needs regular cleaning and maintenance. Most cats are indoor pets. So, you don’t need to walk them or let them outside.

Some cats love to cuddle and will spend hours snuggling on your lap. Others are more aloof and seek your attention only when they want it. Cats also enjoy playing. Plus, felines won’t beg for human food the way that dogs do.

Finally, the average cost of owning a cat is less than owning a dog, per an ASPCA study.

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Benefits of Pet Hamsters and Fish

Hamsters make cute pets. They like to socialize but can also entertain themselves with toys in their cage for hours at a time. Watching them play can be fun, and holding and petting them can be soothing. Hamsters clean themselves, require minimal cage cleaning, and are relatively inexpensive pets.

Watching fish swim in their colorful underwater aquarium has many benefits. A Purdue University study found that Alzheimer’s patients who were exposed to fish tanks “appeared to be more relaxed and alert, and they ate up to 21% more food than they had before the introduction of the fish tanks.”

Other studies showed watching fish relieved stress, improved mood, lowered blood pressure, and reduced heart rates. Furthermore, upkeep for fish is less expensive as opposed to cats or dogs.

Overall, caring for a pet can spark incomparable joy, improve your mood, and many other rewards.

Here is a list of local nonprofit organizations that have cats, dogs and rabbits available for adoption.

The Active Aging Series is brought to you by our partner, Cambrian Homecare. Cambrian Homecare has been assisting individuals to stay independent in their homes for 25 years. Flexible experience you can trust, when the best place is still at home. Click here to see all of Cambrian’s informative articles.