I have been a dog lover all my life and a dog owner for most of my adult years. Much has been written about the benefits to our physical and mental health when we own a dog.
Having firsthand experience, I do not need scientific proof of the benefits of bonding with a dog. However, turns out there actually is scientific proof that is quite compelling.
If you have the chance to view the PBS documentary, “The Secret Lives of Dogs,” I would highly recommend doing so. The show offers insight into these amazing creatures we often call pets.
Do you know why it can be so relaxing to be with a dog? Studies show that when we stroke a dog, it lowers our blood pressure. The attachment hormone oxytocin is released into our bloodstream. This same hormone is released when a mother breast-feeds a baby.
Rebecca A Johnson, PhD, (University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine) discusses how, “a powerful neurochemical, oxytocin is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy. It’s also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone.”
Not only do we as humans experience this but also the benefits go both ways. Our dogs’ blood pressure drops also.
Lower cholesterol, stress and blood pressure levels combined with increased fitness may add up to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. The theory is supported by the American Heart Association, which examined the effects of pet ownership on heart disease and concluded that having a dog is associated with a reduction in risk, and increased survival among patients.
Dogs can be highly beneficial to our aging population in particular. The unconditional acceptance and love of a dog can create a bond and companionship that makes a difference in mental health.
Loneliness is the biggest contributor to mental health, which can lead to depression. An animal can provide a focus away from the negative thoughts a depressed person is prone to have. It is fulfilling to look after a creature that is dependent on you but offers so much in return. It can be a boost to one’s desire to look after one’s own health in order to meet the responsibility of caring for a pet.
A dog may help an older person feel connected to others. Pet owners may get outside more, interact with their neighborhood more, feel increased self-esteem and have feelings of belonging and meaningful existence.
For those affected by dementia and their caregivers, pets can be very therapeutic. Sometimes behavioral issues associated with dementia are because of the inability to deal with stress. A dog provides a calmer environment. An animal’s non-verbal communication and acceptance is soothing in these situations.
My own lab-mix dog came into my life eight plus years ago as a dog who had a tumultuous past, was surrendered to a kill shelter, rescued and adopted, only to be given up again. My role was to foster her to the point where she could be successfully adopted. Three months into her healing, she became the dog of anyone’s dreams. “Anyone” became me!
I have been beside Colbie through a serious case of heartworm and in helping put her neglect and abuse behind her. She has been beside me through the illness and death of a parent and through breast cancer. Now I am beside her in her own fight against cancer. She and I have “done” cancer already, so together, we have this.
My dog looks at me as if I am the most incredible being on earth. She remains oblivious to my imperfections. Who couldn’t use that jolt of self-esteem on a daily basis?
Pet ownership is not for everyone and there are many factors to consider when dealing with one’s own advanced age. Dogs are a commitment and we sign a contract to care for them when we bring one into our home.
Check out what agingcare.com writes about regarding pet ownership for elders at; https://www.agingcare.com/Articles/benefits-of-elderly-owning-pets-113294.htm.
For an elder it is important to consider one’s own health conditions. Mobility will determine the type of pet and in the case of dogs, the breed and age. There is often an initial cost to adopting and ongoing costs for veterinary care and feeding. This can be especially burdensome when there is a pre-existing illness for a pet.
For some tips on how to make wise decisions on pet ownership, check out the following; https://www.petful.com/pet-health/pets-and-elderly-people/
It is recommended that an elder find the help of a caretaker in the event of illness or hospitalization. Everyone needs a back-up plan or a succession plan
In our own North Shore area, you can check out the services of one of our Aging Services Access Point, SeniorCare in Gloucester. They have a new program STAY – Serving the Animals You Love. Read more about the program at http://www.seniorcareinc.org/stay/
The rewards of dog ownership can be life changing. Whatever I have ever put into dog ownership has always come back to me tenfold. There is a reason we have labelled them “man’s best friend.” They are uncomplicated and it is much simpler to make them happy than our fellow humans.
I do not know if I will always be able to have the joy of dog ownership. I am up to bat in the aging game now. I ask myself who I will be without a dog. I know I am a better person with one in my life. With all the known benefits of having a dog, I think I will always be able to rationalize owning one, regardless of my age. That is my goal anyway. The pros will undoubtedly always outweigh the cons for this senior.