By Hazel Bridges
For seniors, owning an animal can give life purpose, improve physical health, and help them take better care of themselves. It’s no wonder animal-assisted therapy has proven to be effective in relieving symptoms of depression and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s. While all animals can have a positive impact on the elderly, each one brings a little something different to the table.
The intense bonding experience that occurs between a human and a dog is the reason why dogs are touted as man’s best friend. For safety reasons, it’s better that seniors choose a smaller, low-energy dog. Older pooches can be a good option, and there are plenty of them at the shelter who need a loving home. Because dogs need to be walked on a regular basis, walking a dog helps seniors stay physically fit and can lead to improved heart health and mobility. And between the dog park and leisurely neighborhood strolls, owning a dog can help the elderly stay social, too.
Cats get a bad rap for being aloof, but they can be just as docile and affectionate as dogs. Studies indicate that cats don’t see their owner as a parent because that’s not how their own mother was perceived, thus one of the reasons why felines are more independent. Speaking of which, since cats use a litter box, they are relatively low-maintenance pets. You just have to make sure you don’t have any health-related issues that prohibit you from cleaning it on a daily basis. Studies indicate that cat owners are less likely to have a stroke than any other pet owner, possibly because cats are so easy to take care of. Even the simple act of petting a cat can reduce stress, which causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone known for promoting feelings of love and trust.
If a dog or cat is too much work, birds are relatively low-maintenance (cleanup is as easy as changing newspaper at the bottom of the cage) while still being somewhat interactive. If you’re looking for the ultimate in entertainment, consider a breed like a budgie, Amazon parrot, or Indian ringneck parakeet that can be trained to talk. Studies suggest that birds encourage social interaction, which is great for mental health. Keep in mind that most birds have a long lifespan—oftentimes outliving their owners—so be sure to make arrangements for your pet.
Home aquariums are known for having a relaxing effect similar to petting a cat or a dog, but with a lot less maintenance. Studies indicate that those with Alzheimer’s disease have experienced several health benefits by regularly spending time near an aquarium. Many individuals have improved appetite which, in turn, requires fewer nutritional supplements. There’s also a reduction in physically aggressive behavior.
Despite the copious benefits that come with owning a pet, make sure you are in good enough health and can afford to take care of an animal (expenses include regular vet visits, food, toys, medicine, and medical care if applicable) so you don’t have to surrender it later on. This can be an extremely traumatic experience for pet and owner alike. Just in case, it’s not a bad idea to have a conversation with friends and loved ones in advance about arrangements for the pet. Giving your pet away to someone you know and trust is a better option than returning it to the shelter.
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