Animals make popular pets because they provide humans with physical and emotional benefits.
Pets, or companion animals, provide company and entertainment, and they give humans exercise and social interaction. People are themselves group animals who do not flourish in isolation.
They provide interaction and relieve the burden of isolation. That is the reason why older people who live alone, have a need for keeping pets.
An analysis done in 2019 of global research over 70 years involving 4 million people in eight countries indicated that dog ownership was associated with a 24% reduction in “all-cause mortality”. People who already had a heart attack had a 31% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. A separate study in Sweden had a similar outcome.
These studies are observational and do not mean it has been proven. It is nevertheless a good indication of what to expect once in-depth research is done.
Pets provide social value depending on the needs of their human owners. Examples of the value provided by pets are”
- companionship for the elderly,
- companionship and learning for the young,
- companionship and support for disabled owners,
- service like that provided by detection (sniffer) dogs, therapy dogs, police dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, and herding dogs,
Common pet animals are
- ferrets, pigs, rodents (hamsters, chinchillas, rats and mice), parrots,
- reptiles (turtles, lizards and snakes),
- aquatic pets (fish and salt-water snails),
- amphibians (frogs and salamanders),
- anthropods (tarantulas and hermit crabs).
Research showed that people get pets for companionship, home protection or their perceived attractiveness and there is research that indicates that homeless people may change their behaviour if it threatens their pet ownership.
Benefits of pets for children
“The greatest pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him, and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too.”Samuel Butler. Novelist and Poet
Pets are a must for children because it not only teaches them skills, compassion and responsibility, but, especially dogs, can be good listeners for children who learn to read, and a living being with whom children can share their deepest feelings and secrets.
Exposure to animals creates resistance to common allergies due to exposure to bacteria.
Pets boost self-esteem in children because they are non-judgemental and they do not try to pro-actively teach the child anything. They aid in the development of trusting relationships, and they give children the opportunity to observe life events such as reproduction, illness, death and mourning.
Benefits of pets for the elderly
One of the negative factors of old age is the feeling of loneliness and doubt about one’s self-worth.
People who retire from their careers soon experience isolation as a result of a lack of interaction with other people. Once you retire there is no water cooler talk. Isolation leads to a feeling of worthlessness that often ends in depression.
A pet can fill a large part of the void left by the absence of family and colleagues, and energise senior adults who may feel isolated and neglected.
Pets such as dogs that are by nature pack or herd animals make good companions for the elderly and they are possibly the most popular companion animals because
- they interact with humans by responding to attention and emotion,
- require less care than most types of pets,
- aler owners about someone approaching
- act as protectors of the elderly.
Pets provide a number of advantages to their owners:
Pets make their owners feel needed.
There is however research done in the USA which indicates that cats are more beneficial to socially isolated home-bound older adults. Cat owners reported, “significantly lower” levels of depressive symptoms than dog owners. There was no difference in the experience of loneliness between the owners of cats and dogs and both groups reported high levels of attachment to their pets.
I suppose much depend on whether the potential owners consider themselves dog or cat people.
Pets help their owners be more social.
Pet owners become social because they get out of the house to take their dogs for a walk and in the process, they meet like-minded people.
Owners have a common interest and seeing someone who also has a pet is not only a conversation starter but helps in the decision whether someone is worth meeting.
Pet therapy utilizes trained animals to achieve physical, cognitive, emotional and social benefits for patients.
Although pets do not “talk” back, having something like a pet to talk to, is in itself therapeutic because it enables verbal expression and the feeling of being heard.
Pets can also help speed up recovery after illness by taking the patient’s attention away from the source of their problem and boosting their mood.
Health facilities are increasingly using pets and other animals such as horses to visit patients and serve as therapy for the sick.
There are indications that pets help older adults cope with health issues and to connect with other people, and research in Australia showed that Psychiatric Assistance Dogs reduced anxiety, kept patients in the present by “pawing”, interrupted undesirable behaviour and caused other desirable outcomes in patients.
Looking after a pet means the owner has to feed, water, groom and interact with the pet. This increases responsibility and the will to live for the future.
Daily chores such as caring for a pet keep elderly people occupied, help them fight boredom and give them purpose.
Pet ownership requires activity from the owner. The activity can vary from just feeding the pet to walking or jogging with a dog.
Pets need exercise and attention which in turn means increased activity, stimulation and focus for the elderly. Dog owners walk more than other people their age.
Pets assist in making people mindful. Mindfulness is the ability to forget about the past and future and to focus completely on the present.
Mindfulness releases stress and makes people feel in control of the situation. It can have a big influence on the well-being of an elderly person.
Certain pets such as dogs can be protection for an elderly person or serve as a deterrent for people with bad intentions.
A big advantage of owning a pet is that the required activities add structure to your day.
This can be beneficial to elderly people who live alone and easily miss a meal or some other important activity. Dogs know when it is walking or feeding time and will remind their owners. This can be of value to elderly people but also to people who work at home.
One of the most under-estimated advantages of elderly people having a pet is the fact that pets are forgiving and do not judge. This trait of animals means there is no pressure on the pet owner to conform to their pet or avoid judgement by their companion.
It leads to a relaxed way of life.
How to choose a pet for a senior person
Questions peculiar to choosing a pet for an elderly person include:
- Is the senior set in their ways? If the potential pet owner is not someone who likes change, getting a pet might disrupt his or her routine. That may be counter-productive.
- Have they owned a pet in the past? Experienced pet owners are better candidates for pet ownership, but a person who is open to change and new commitments can make a good pet owner.
- Does the intended pet owner need a pet to cope with disability or other limitation?
- Does the breed personality correspond with the personality of the elderly person?
- Can the senior person afford the pet?
- How will the pet be cared for in case the elderly owner has to go to a facility where pets are not allowed, to a hospital or the owner passes away?
It is important that you do not give a pet as a gift to an elderly (or any) person because of what you think they want or need, but to first make very sure what their needs are.
How to choose a pet
The first question when choosing a pet is Why? Why do you want a pet?
- Do you need a companion? Do you need a pet to teach children life skills and responsibility? Do you need a solution for your empty nest syndrome after the last child left the house? Do you need a pet to exercise with you?
- Do you have a condition that requires a therapeutic or assistance animal, or do you need a service animal like a dog trained to perform tasks for an owner with a disability?
- How do you lead your life? Is it an active life, a non-active life or an isolated life?
If you know the answer to these questions, you can start looking at what animal would make the best pet for you.
Dogs are the most popular animals to keep as pets, so, let us look at the types of dogs. Most countries, including South Africa, follows the dog breed groups of the American Kennel Club (AKA).
They distinguish between 7 groups of dogs:
- Sporting Group – Dogs such as Labrador, Pointer and Spaniel.
- Hound Group – Dogs like Bloodhound, Dachshund and Greyhound.
- Working Group – Boxer, Great Dane and Rottweiler.
- Terrier Group – Bull Terrier and Scottish Terrier.
- Toy Group – Chihuahua, Pug and Shih Tzu.
- Non-Sporting Group – Bulldog, Dalmatian and Poodle.
- Herding Group – Border Collie, German Shepherd and Welsh Corgi.
The group best suited to elderly owners is the Toy Group while some dogs from the Sporting Group like Labradors may be welcomed by children, as would the smaller Terriers.
Birds as pets
Birds don’t require to be walked and they live in cages, which means they demand little time and space.
They keep themselves clean and the owner only needs to clean their cages and feed them. Something that is much less trouble than walking.
Birds are smart, they can learn tricks and tasks and they can become attached and loyal to their owner. Some birds can live up to 100 years, which makes them good pets for people who fear losing a pet. That can also be a problem if the bird outlives its owner.
Cats as pets
The popular saying about cats is that people don’t keep cats, cats keep people.
Cats are intuitive animals and that enables them to observe the feelings of humans. Cats know when their owners need love and support during strenuous times.
They are easy to keep. They do not need as much attention as dogs, don’t require to be walked, are generally quiet and can play by themselves. At the same time, they can be playful with humans.
Horses as pets
Horses can provide companionship, help you build self-confidence and provide exercise when riding them.
The downside is that horses are expensive to keep, need large spaces to live and exercise, and cleaning stalls and grooming your horse takes time and effort.
Do hamsters make good pets?
Hamsters are solitary pets, they prefer not to share a cage with other hamsters, but they do form bonds with owners who spend time playing and cuddling them outside of their cages.
They do not make good pets for small children as they require careful handling and may bite when they feel insecure. They must be fed in a dish, as they can easily ingest their bedding if it is mixed with their food.
Hamsters groom themselves and are actually very clean little animals. They do not like old food, so their food needs to be changed every day. Special care should be taken with hamster bedding as they don’t react well to non-organic bedding. Bedding should be hay, grass or a similar product.
Their cages need to be cleaned at least weekly because they use their bedding as a toilet. Bedding should be cleaned every six months with a small part of the old bedding retained to ensure the hamster feels secure.
Make sure you know the difference between hamsters and guinea pigs. They are not the same and don’t eat the same food. Guinea Pigs are larger than hamsters.
Reptiles are good pets for people with allergies and families who need a low-maintenance pet.
Some reptiles like snakes only eat once a week which makes them easier to care for. They need less care but they need specialised care otherwise they easily experience health consequences from the wrong diet, wrong handling or wrong habitats.
Reptiles can be plant-eating, insect-eating or meat eating. They cannot control their body temperature and need to be housed in appropriate heat and humidity housing.
You need to research the reptile you want to keep as a pet, because they all need different forms of care. They don’t need much attention but are fascinating to watch. Reptiles are inexpensive to own, and they live long. You will need to have a vet that knows reptiles.
Other reptiles that are kept as pets but who require proper research and knowledge before you acquire one, are
- bearded dragons,
It is best to get a reptile that was bred in captivity as they are healthier, live longer and you don’t encourage the illegal pet trade by buying animals caught in nature.
Choose your pet well. We hope you have years of pleasure and companionship from your pet.