Guy Thompson, a retired shipfitter and engineer at naval ship builder Bath Iron Works in Maine, takes his two standard poodles, Jessy and Esther, everywhere. When he lost two wives to cancer, the dogs kept him company.
“They took the curse off losing a second wife in a row to cancer,” said Thompson, 72. “I’ve never been loved quite as thoroughly as I have been by the male dog. He’s pretty special.”
Now as Jessy, 10, and Esther, 8, are getting older, Thompson said their needs give him something to worry about other than himself.
“And that’s a good thing,” Thompson said.
Dogs may be good for more than just sloppy, unconditional love: for older adults, they may even be a key to good health.
Older adults who have a dog are more likely to have a higher step count per day. One large study found adult dog owners are 22 minutes more active per day than non-dog owners and average 2,760 additional steps per day.
Pet ownership also can help ease depression, reduce stress indicators such as heart rate, blood pressure, falls, and even hospitalization rates, according to Kenneth Koncilja a geriatrician from Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Geriatric Medicine.
“Brain health is supported by healthy social relationships, regular physical activity, purpose, and connectedness. Owning a pet supports all four of these domains. We know people who own pets tend to be more social. They interact with other pet owners as well as with their pet itself,” Koncilja said.
“The companionship from pet ownership and the positive interactions of returning home to a pet or the pet’s basic needs being fulfilled such as being grateful for food, treats, or even a back scratch can release dopamine in the pet owner. These types of consistent interactions can lead to serotonin and dopamine release just from thinking about the pet even if out of town or in a hospital,” Koncilja said.
During the pandemic, as people stayed home and worked and studied remotely, pets became a salve for isolation and stress. More than 23 million American households, or almost one in five nationwide, adopted a pet during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Of course, pets have long been used as therapy assistants to help relieve loneliness and depression in older adults. Emotional support dogs can help people with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, and service dogs can assist people with mobility and visual challenges as well as helping many veterans with PTSD, research shows.
But even a regular pet, not just a therapy animal, can have health benefits.
The 12-year study published in Scientific Reports looked at more than 3.4 million Swedish adults ages 40 to 80 years old and found that dog owners had a lower risk of death due to heart disease.
This benefit was even more compelling among people who lived alone. Single dog owners had an 11% lower risk of having a heart attack and a 33% lower risk of dying during the study compared with single people who didn’t own dogs.
In the U.S., about two-thirds of homes include a pet, according to the American Pet Products Association. More than half of adults over the age of 50 have a pet, and 14% over the age of 65 have pets, the association said.
The journal “Aging and Mental Health” found in a survey of adults 65 years or older with pets may benefit them by “providing companionship, giving a sense of purpose and meaning, reducing loneliness and increasing socialization.”
An older adult and older dog often make a good pairing.
“Their lifestyles will mimic each other. The pair will benefit from needing to stay mobile and short, frequent walks help both of them,” said Danny Sack, a small animal veterinarian and surgical intern with Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Services in Rochester, N.Y. “There’s a marriage between a person’s lifestyle and the dog’s.”
Having a pet to look after also gives older adults purpose and the companionship keeps them both healthier.
“There’s a quality of life aspect—being together keeps them lively and keeps them moving,” Sack said.
Even puppies can be good fits for older adults, especially small and midsize dogs that won’t accidentally knock over an owner, Sacks said.
“Nothing makes me more happy than seeing a puppy and its tail wagging. There’s a lot of joy that can be gained from being around that energy,” Sack said.
While some research exists on the benefits of dog ownership, there’s more areas to explore to help people age more successfully, Koncilja said.
“I think more research should be done on the benefits of pet therapy and pet ownership. Functional MRI and PET scan activity will provide more hard evidence in the future to better understand the impact of pet ownership on biopsychosocial health. We don’t need health indicators to validate our love for our furry friends but it sure is nice to find public health research supporting pet ownership as a component of healthy aging,” Koncilja said.