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Seniors and Pets: A Wonderful Combination

by and on March 09, 2014 1:45 PM

When you, as an older person, decide to get a pet, whether a rescue animal or one from a particular breeder, there are certain factors you should consider.

What do you want from your pet? Do you want to take long walks outdoors? Are you physically capable of managing a big dog, or would a lap dog be a better choice at this time of life?

The other factor about the size of the dog in relation to health is that a dog may be cute and little, but some seniors have found that the bending down to pick up the tiny ones can be hard on aging backs. Test to see if the dog can jump up on your lap without help.

If your dog is sick, can you lift it into the car for a vet trip? Are you steady on your feet? An excited dog can quickly wrap its leash around your feet. Many people, young and old, have fallen in that manner.

Dogs are the greatest catalysts for more physical activity in their owners. According to Warren Eckstein, a pet psychologist, simply walking the dog can be beneficial to pets and their owners.

"Walking a dog for 10 minutes at a time can help seniors work toward the goal of 150 minutes of weekly aerobic exercise, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Eckstein says.

Where you live can be a very limiting factor. If you have moved into a smaller living space or a senior living center, you may want to foster a dog for a couple days.

Ellen Hermann, a six year volunteer at PAWS, tells me that a person recently brought a dog back because of constant barking. The would-be owner lived in an apartment and the other occupants were not happy with the barking. Luckily, that story did have a happy ending as a new "bark collar" was tried with success and the woman was able to keep the dog.

Some shelters, such as PAWS will allow you to try fostering for a couple of days to see if the animal will adapt to your lifestyle and you to its ways. Also in relation to living space, do you have to use stairs or an elevator to get outside for the dog to go to the bathroom?

In consideration of taking the dog outside, you'll want to think about the weather. Taking a dog out three or four times a day in nice weather may be a pleasant break in your routine, but in a winter such as we've had this year — it is a chore. First you collect the boots, the coat, etc. for yourself and then the leash and/or a coat for the pet.

And you may have to arrange shoveling or sweeping of the sidewalk before you venture out. The making of pathways for the pet may cost more also if you are unable to do it yourself.

Speaking of cost, Hermann says one of the questions for dog adoption at PAWS is, "Can you afford $650-$1200 annually to maintain a dog? An emergency upwards of $500?"Another consideration says Hermann is whether you have back up family or friends to take the dog if you become ill or need to travel.

If you are elderly, have you considered that some dog breeds might outlive you by several years? Can you make arrangements for the pet to have a home after you are gone?

Some shelters try to match older people with older dogs or cats. The animals have gone through their puppy and kitten stages and through the "crazy teen' years. A calmer, mellower animal may yet bring years of joy to its owner. A cat is a good choice for older persons because they require less care, other than keeping the litter boxes clean. A cat can stay alone if you need to leave for a day or so, if you provide plenty of food, water and kitty litter.

Researching type of breeds can prevent disappointment later. Do you want a dog that doesn't shed a lot? Grooming can be time consuming as well as expensive if the dog must be clipped and bathed often. Many of the small breeds can be high-energy also.

Who doesn't love a puppy or kitten? Remember how much time it takes to train a puppy? What about all the chewing? Can you move quickly enough to get that object from the dog's mouth that he just picked up?

Cats are definitely less maintenance. Cats do however give the same emotional benefits to their owners. It has been shown in studies that just stroking a cat's fur can calm a person and bring a smile to his face. Cat owners, according to the researchers at the University of Minnesota, have a one-third lower risk for heart attack than non-cat owners. This is attributable to their ability to reduce stress and anxiety.

On I found an interesting article on "The 5 Best Dogs for Your Golden Years" by Gina Spadafori, March 5, 2013. In it she talks about The French Bulldog, the Maltese, the Poodle, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi and the Schipperke. The last one (that I had never heard of) is a breed that was originally developed for onboard living as a ship's ratter from Belgium. I'll bet you didn't know that did you?

My only purpose in all this is to point out the many benefits of pet ownership for the senior set, but at the same time, get you to consider all the responsibilities and commitments that accompany a new companion. Although I concentrated on dogs and cats mostly, there are benefits to other creatures as well.

Birds are mentioned in the advice for older pet seekers as being interesting and possibly conversational. You may be able to teach a parrot or parakeet to speak if you are patient enough.

Surprisingly, fish are the most stress reducing of the pet realm. Watching fish can lower stress levels, calm a racing mind and reduce blood pressure. Perhaps that is why you see them in waiting rooms at medical offices.

This post was originally published by the staff at Onward State. Follow Onward State on Twitter @OnwardState.

Connie Cousins covers Centre County for the Gazette.
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