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The Rewards of Canine Companionship

There are so many good reasons to consider pet ownership for an elderly loved one. People living with dementia still have the ability—and need—to give and receive the unconditional love of a furry pet.

If you count by households instead of actual pets, dogs are the most popular pets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation. In 2012, 36.5% of households in the United States owned dogs (30.5% owned cats and only 3.1% owned birds). Yes, pooches remain “man’s best friend” and there is no age limit on enjoying their company.

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Before you start worrying about, er, clean up, consider the possible benefits:

  1. Companionship. Plain and simple, dogs are friends. Everyone needs to feel a sense of purpose, to be needed in some way, and dogs do need to be petted, fed, walked, and loved. The rewards for taking care of their needs are loving smiles, a wagging tail, a warm snuggle on the couch. Elders living alone can be suffering from loneliness and depression for many reasons such as loss of a loved one or illness, but having a pet can be one way to alleviate these feelings. Truly, researchers have found that when dog owners and their pups lock eyes, the same hormonal response that takes places when people bond with infants occurs and a strong emotional bond is built.
  2. Less stress. Not just dogs, but other pets too, can help to reduce stress, lower cholesterol and obesity. Studies show that pet owners have lower heart rates and blood pressure compared to their non-pet owning friends. Simply walking the dog can have health benefits as people walk off pounds and stress with Fido. Another side effect is that all this dog walking exercise keeps people mobile longer than those who don’t have a dog to walk. A National Institutes of Health study reviewed people ages 71 to 82 and discovered that they had more mobility in their homes than their pet-less counterparts.
  3. Remain engaged. Having a dog means that at some point you need to leave the house—whether to go for that daily walk—or walks—or just make a routine visit to the veterinarian. As a result, you might make some new friends on your route or in the waiting room. Chances are you already have something in common—dog ownership, walking, for starters—and can strike up a friendship to look forward to daily.

For Me? You Shouldn’t Have!

Despite the scientific research proving the up side of having a dog as a pet, they’re not for everyone. Some people may be allergic, others may be at risk of falling if the animal gets underfoot, or the cost of food and medical care may be too much. There is still a way to enjoy some of the benefits of dog interaction:

  1. If you have an elderly friend or loved one who lives nearby, and they are not allergic to dogs, make it part of your routine to visit with the animal. They can still pet the dog, give it a treat, maybe even join you on a walk and get out of the house.
  2. If you help an elder in your community with errands, ask if they’d like to stop by a local shelter before your next trip to the grocery store. This way they can meet the animals, maybe pet them, and learn more about pets that might suit them.
  3. Tiptoe into pet ownership by fostering a dog, which involves giving it a home while it is still up for adoption at the local shelter. This gets the animal out of the stressful environment of the shelter while they wait for a forever home.

Even those who need care and help with daily activities can be caregivers to a special pet who fills their heart with love.

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