Caring for an animal provides physical, mental health benefits
By Autumn Gray
Tinkerbell and Don Selby were what you might call “regulars.” The pair, a Havanese dog and 70-something retiree, delighted their neighborhood with routine daily walks – and a solid run of curbside talks – right to the end.
“He was diagnosed with cancer shortly after we got Tinkerbell, but that didn’t stop him,” Rio Rancho resident Ruth Ann Selby said of her husband. “He walked that dog two times a day, and it got him up and going, and he made a lot of friends by walking the neighborhood. People looked forward to seeing him.
“Even times when he felt bad during the chemo, I’d say, ‘Well, I’ll walk the dog,’ but he insisted he do it,” making the rounds until just a few weeks before Don died in 2019.
Selby said Tinkerbell provided her husband with motivation, purpose, and exercise that he might not have had otherwise.
It’s well-documented that seniors reap psychological and physical benefits from pet ownership, said Dr. Christina Bungo, a geriatrician with Presbyterian Healthcare. These include decreased blood pressure and cholesterol levels; increased odds of survival after heart attacks; decreased feelings of loneliness and isolation; reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; and an increase in socialization.
While many of these benefits are correlated with the activity seniors get as a result of catering to a dog’s requirements, such as regular walks or visits to parks, Bungo said there is great value in having a cat, bird, or other animal companion, even if they aren’t likely to take a stroll around the block.
“Simply interacting with a pet (even just petting, brushing, or talking to the animal) can release serotonin in the brain, which is a feel-good hormone,” Bungo said. “It releases endorphins or neurotransmitters that lead to decreased anxiety and can improve depressive symptoms.”
Sonya Walsh, a certified nurse practitioner with Optum New Mexico, says she sees the evidence first-hand in her clinic: “A lot of my senior patients, some will even tell me their antidepressants aren’t working and then they get a pet and realize that’s what they needed. It gives them responsibility after retirement. … They take better care of themselves because they know they want to be there for their animals.”
Not all animals are ideal for an older person, of course. Many seniors believe small dogs to be the best option, but health experts warn that they can be a tripping hazard, especially if the pet is young, active, and untrained. On the flip side, large dogs may be considered too much to handle.
However, pet adoption professionals and health care experts alike say senior cats and dogs, regardless of size, often make the best companions for senior people. With November recognized as National Adopt a Senior Pet Month, animal adoption organizations are hoping to spread the word, as older pets tend to stay in shelters longer.
Animal Humane New Mexico, which defines a senior pet as age 6 and older, finds that many potential adopters mistakenly believe that older animals are there because something is wrong with them. Nothing could be further from the truth, said Erica Webb, Animal Humane’s senior director of development and marketing. The majority of senior pets have already been a faithful companion to someone and are simply waiting for their next loving home.
“More adult pets end up in a shelter due to lifestyle changes or financial changes in a home rather than anything the pet did,” she said.
Adopters may also be hesitant to adopt an animal that they don’t know from a very young age, Webb said, “but with a senior dog or cat, what you see if what you get.” For example, older pets come with life skills in place. They know how to walk on a leash, they’re housebroken, they may know “sit” and “stay” commands, which are essential for both the pet’s and the person’s safety. Size, weight, and personality are known quantities in older pets.
“Young animals, they move a little faster, are more unpredictable and don’t have the training behind them. And honestly, they just have higher needs,” Webb said.
Selby’s Tinkerbell is now about 15 years old, requiring little more than a daily walk and feeding. In return, she gives Selby unconditional love and motivation, especially during difficult days. Selby has had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 40 years and was having an especially trying time getting around for the majority of 2021.
“Some of those days, if you’re very ill, you think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ But I’ve got to get up and do things for her,” Selby said. “It gives you a desire to be able to do those things. Then, once you get up and going, you realize you don’t feel as bad as you thought. Having a pet gives you an incentive to go on with your life as normal.
“And it means that there’s someone looking out for you.”
Estate Planning for Pets
Many seniors who find themselves alone due to death of a spouse or of a pet are reluctant to adopt an animal. They may be concerned that the pet will outlive them and have no one to take care of it. They might fear what will happen to the pet if they were to become unexpectedly incapacitated.
While these considerations are understandable, animal welfare experts say that these worries should not be obstacles to pet ownership in later years. In fact, a contingency plan for animal care is good to have in place no matter your age.
Ideally, pet owners should make arrangements with a reliable family member to take the pet in case of an emergency. However, when that’s not possible, you can ensure your pet is taken care of by doing some estate planning.
“Animal Humane New Mexico has a Planning for Your Pet program that provides suggestions and resources, whether your plan is for your pet to go to Animal Humane or to someone you know. You can learn more from Stephanie Miller at [email protected] or by calling 505.938.7919.