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Creatures, Critters & Seniors – is the Health Benefit Real?


Staff member
Dec 13, 2023
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I encounter human-animal connections all around me. Just consider some of the quirky ‘celebrated’ days in the last few months of the year. I’m certain I’ve missed more obscure entries, but here’s at least a partial list.​

Nat’l Hummingbird DaySept 2
Nat’l Wildlife DaySept 4
Nat’l Pet Memorial DaySept 9
Nat’l Hug your Hound daySept 10
Responsible Dog Ownership DaySept 16
Puppy Mill Awareness DaySept 16
Nat’l Pet Bird DaySept 17
Nat’l Elephant Appreciation DaySept 22
World Rhino DaySept 22
Nat’l Hunting & Fishing DaySept 23 (oops, nix that for this loving vs. eating topic)
Nat’l Dogs in Politics DaySept 23
Int’l Rabbit DaySept 30
World Animal DayOct 4
Monkey DayOct 14
Global Cat DayOct 16
Int’l Sloth DayOct 20 (My favorite)
National Cat DayOct 29
Adopt a Senor Pet MONTHNovember (still time to plan)
Nat’l llama DayDec 9
Int’l Animal Rights DayDec 10
Nat’l Day of the HorseDec 13

Admittedly, it’s a rather bizarre list. Yet, it starts to demonstrate how profound many of these loving relationships are among us.​

Something We Call Family

We’ve all experienced, or observed, animals treated as part of a family. If you do not think pets are family members, my first guess would be you have never lived with a pet. Animals are often an important aspect of our lives. Personally, it is the rare animal I meet and do not immediately bond with or admire. They almost always make me smile. I cannot say that about all people. It’s obviously much easier to establish a relationship with an animal who will not criticize you if the bed is left unmade, the toast burned or the toilet cover left up. They may even thank you for the latter.

Even those of us maintaining a firm grip on the cantankerous category often have doting and loving relationships with pets. Let’s face it, pets have a magical quality and are right up there with laughter as the best medicine.​

“You can say any foolish thing to a dog,
and the dog will give you a look that says,
‘My God, you’re right! I never would’ve thought of that!”
~ Dave Barry

Nevertheless, the question remains. Is the research clear on the ability of animals to make us healthier or allow us to live longer? It’s not so simple.​

Research Problems with Pet Connections

In April, there is another national designated day, “Crazy Cat Women Day.” While I’ll refrain from commenting on that particular description, it does emphasize, considering the many people who voluntarily celebrate the day, why there are problems with research. People love their pets so much that they often try to convince researchers about the extent of benefits in having a pet, inasmuch throwing bias info findings.

There are other difficulties. How do we define ‘pet?’ Perhaps everyone could agree that a cat or dog is a pet. However, what about a goldfish? A pig? An elephant? A turtle or a lizard? Must it be a mammal (as such disqualifying our turtles and lizards, or my beloved geckos)? Does it have to live in your home to qualify? Is size a factor?

When researching the health and longevity connection between people and other “beings” the factors are difficult to control for, making it a challenge to extrapolate findings. The bottom line is that influence depends on the person, the brain connections or stimulations, gender differences, time spent with the animal, type of diseases and physiological conditions being examined, activities shared by the duo, and of course the particular human and ‘pet’ in question.​

It was Washoe who taught me that “human”
is only an adjective that describes “being,”
and that the essence of who I am is not my humanness but my beingness.
There are human beings, chimpanzee beings and cat beings. *

From: Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees have Taught Me about Who We Are
~ Roger Fouts

[*Chimpanzee-beings are not good ‘pets. Under almost all circumstances, your home is not the safest or most stimulating place for them; neither are they the best fit for your home. Keeping them as pets may do them a great disservice. It’s neither a helpful nor healthful situation for them and can be dangerous for humans as chimps age.]​

Why do You own a Pet?​

When researching the goal of pet ownership “[T]here’s not one answer about how a pet can help somebody with a specific condition,” according to Dr. Layla Esposito. Dr. Esposito, a program director at NICHD, but who formerly oversaw NIH’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Program, explains that “there is no one type [of relationship goal] that fits all.”

You have to ask yourself why you want a pet. What do you think you will get out of it?

If the goal is stress reduction, watching a fish swim might do the trick. I personally probably wouldn’t want a hamster as I imagine watching its wheel turn round and round would aggravate my motion sickness. Thus, not my goal. But if increased physical activity were the goal, AND the owner plans to walk a dog, that would be helpful. For some people, horses are used to experience passive mobility. Again, it depends on your objectives and personality, but there’s “no one type.”​

Power of Pets​

More families own pets in the US than not. An estimated 68-70% of American households have a pet. As such, the vast possibilities of people with pets makes for a large pool of subjects in research on human-animal interaction. But despite the numbers, study results have been somewhat mixed.

Research findings for children demonstrate clearly how varied reactions can be depending on the pet. For example, children who during the first years of life had a bird in their household are more likely to develop respiratory symptoms (such as wheezing) compared to other children. Yet, those who had a dog or cat during those formative years were less likely to develop allergies when older. Go figure.​

But do People with Pets Live Longer?

Before we explore some of the benefits, let’s answer this question about longevity. Do animals help us live longer? Perhaps no surprise, but researchers aren’t in agreement on this question.

One 80-year study out of University of California /Riversdale (started in 1921) and which followed 1500 people from childhood was not positive. The health researchers (Howard Freidman and Leslie Martin) who analyzed the mortality data from that research, suggest that interacting with pets did not play a role in subjects’ longevity.

Even when those academics controlled the data for people in socially isolated situations, the results were the same. Noteworthy however, is that the researchers concluded that connections to other people did indeed enhance longevity.​

Other Findings Conflict​

A more positive 1980 study found that those discharged from a coronary care unit and returning home to a pet had a greater 1-years survival rate compared to others.

“Not only dogs” says a 2009 Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology (JVIN) study. Following 4000 subjects over 20 years, results indicated cats decrease risk of death from heart attack or stroke. [And I don’t think these folks were walking their cats.
Not like Cary Grant famously walking his Siamese cats.]

There are numerous findings tracking lots of people. A 2019 meta-analysis from the journal of Circulation claimed up to 65% reduced risk of mortality after coronary disease for dog owners.​

6 Ways Pets help Aging with Pizzazz

  1. Pets put more movement in life. Especially so, when it is an animal (like a dog) that you take for walks. (The caveat is that you actually have to walk the creature; not all dog-owners do.) Most pets increase some activity in our life (even if minimally) on a regular basis.​
  2. Interaction between you and a pet can reduce stress. Just petting a cat or dog can be calming. One study in cooperation between the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition and a grant from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration showed that the unconditional love of a pet can be more comforting to us than our family, spouses of friends. Physiologically, this calming benefit is (in part) due to decrease levels of cortisol and lowering blood pressure. Another study also found that having a dog in your room lowered blood pressure better than ACE inhibitor medications.​
  3. Building bridges to social interactions. Belonging and commitment are essential human needs. Despite the stereotypes of folks locked up in their homes with dozens of pets and few friends, it’s not often accurate. More than half of American over 85 live alone, and one-third of those older than 65 are singles. Especially important to them is that having a pet generally draws more people to them. As is often recounted, seniors in social relationships, have upwards of 50% greater chance of longevity and survival as compared to those isolated. Animals don’t only sustain a commitment with us, but attract others to us, being natural conversation starters (between human beings that is).​
  4. Pets offer a sense of responsibility. Care taking of a pet can instill purpose, especially as people retire or pull away from other professional or volunteering activities.​
  5. Creatures with a heartbeat reduce loneliness. While some study subjects report having social needs filled by pets as much as friends (supporting the human-animal connection), most enjoy their pets along with their friends.​
  6. Spending time with a pet may improve attitude of self and others. According to research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, pet owners have greater self-esteem than others. Animals help the social self. Thinking about, or being around, your pet apparently also helps reduce negative feelings.​
A dog is the only thing on earth
that will love you more than you love yourself.
~ Josh Billings

No Pet? No Plan?

If you’ve read this far, and don’t have a pet (like me), you may have a reason. You may have allergies, housing restrictions, or travel a lot, or any other number of situations. If you neither have a pet, nor a plan to get one, there are alternatives.​

  1. Ther robotic therapeutic harp seal (Paro) used abound the world, such as in Japan, Denmark, US, Sweden, Italy and more has been employed in health care facilities where animal bites or allergic reactions are a concern. It’s also used in cases of severe dementia or Alzheimer’s. Paro has real fur, sweet movements, big eyes and makes tiny noises. The downside is the cost. Ouch. About $6,000. Certainly, a real animal can get costly as well, but I hope the price on these comes down soon. On the upside, Paro has had great success helping those with poor interaction skills and depression.​
  2. Housesitting for the pet of a friend or neighbor. (Most people won’t ask, so if you’re interested, step-up.)​
  3. Volunteer at a shelter or animal sanctuary. (They always need help, as well as money.)​
  4. Inquire about animal-assisted therapy programs that incorporate temporary companionship.​
  5. Make a point of walking along with a friend who owns a pet, or making sure you regularly stop and admire (petting, cooing, whatever) neighbor’s pets. They’ll appreciate it more than likely.​
  6. Outside the animal realm, even caring for plant ‘beings’ has been found to keep elderly residents (especially in nursing homes) alive longer and with happier attitudes. (See Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin research 1970s). It’s unclear if the results come from people having a sense of responsibility, emotional interaction outside themselves or due to more control over their environment. (Revisit Aging with Pizzazz post –Are Houseplants Fun? Decorative? …….Or a Longevity Asset? )​

Final Thought​

I often get blocked developing a final thought with which to end a post. I’ve basically made my points. So, this time I figured I’d end with some animal humor.

For the dog folks:

Jim, the old farmer was inconsolable and told Bob “I lost my dog today.” Bob suggested putting an ad in the paper, but famer Jim asked “What good would that do? My dog can’t read!”
Still, the famer took out the ad in the newspaper. Two weeks later he sadly told his wife that “there’s still no sign of the mutt.” “What did you write in the ad? “She asked. “Here boy,” of course.​

For the cat crowd:

A woman called the airline customer-service desk asking if she could take her cat on board. “Sure,” the rep said, “as long as you provide your own kennel,” further explaining that the kennel needed to be large enough for the cat to stand up, sit down, turn around, and rollover. The woman customer was flummoxed: “I’ll never be able to teach her all of that by tomorrow!”​

For pet lovers who know how smart animals are:

A Canadian psychologist is selling a video that teaches you how to test your pet’s IQ. It’s quite reliable. And it’s simple. It works like this: If you spring for the three installments of $9.99 each for the video, your pet is smarter than you.​

For fine-feather fanciers:

Wandering inside a pet store, a woman stopped in front of a birdcage to admire a lovely parakeet. Shifting their heads from one side to the other, they watched each other for many minutes before the bird finally asked, “Can’t you talk?”​

Finally, I wonder if you know the difference between a cat and a sentence. A cat has claws at the end of its paws; a sentence has a pause at the end of its clause. I paws here.


References and suggested reading:

Allen K, Blascovich J, Mendes WB (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: the truth about cats and dogs. Psychosom Med. Sep-Oct;64(5):727-39. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12271103/

Allen K, Shykoff BE, Izzo JL Jr. (2001). Pet ownership, but not ace inhibitor therapy, blunts home blood pressure responses to mental stress. Hypertension. Oct;38(4):815-20. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/hyp.38.4.815

Beck, Alan M and Aaron Honori Kathcer. Between Pets and people: The Importance of Animal Companionship. Purdue University Press, 1996

Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 234. (HABRI Central)

Cline KM (2010). Psychological effects of dog ownership: role strain, role enhancement, and depression. J Soc Psychol. Mar-Apr;150(2):117-31.

DeWaal, Frans. Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Fun book

Griffin JA, McCune S, Maholmes V, Hurley K (2011). Human-animal interaction research: An introduction to issues and topics. In McCardle P, McCune S, Griffin JA & Maholmes V (Eds.), How animals affect us (pp. 3-9). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Institute) Shareable Infographic: Can Pets Help You Live Longer? | HABRI

Hodgson, K., Barton, L., Darling, M., Antao, V., Kim, F. A., & Monavvari, A. (2015). Pets’ Impact on Your Patients’ Health: Leveraging Benefits and Mitigating Risk. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 28(4), 526-534. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Pets’-Impact-on-Your-Patients’-Health%3A-Leveraging-Hodgson-Barton/e26409c45e0470d34c446e012d9c67eb71495967

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316.

Humane Society of The United States (The), Pets by the numbers. https://humanepro.org/page/pets-by-the-numbers

Johnson RA (2011). Animal-assisted interventions in health care contexts. In McCardle P, McCune S, Griffin JA & Maholmes V (Eds.), How animals affect us (pp. 183-192). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Mubanga, M., Byberg, L., Egenvall, A., Ingelsson, E., & Fall, T. (2019). Dog ownership and survival after a major cardiovascular event: a register-based prospective study. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, 12(10), e005342.

Qureshi, A. I., Memon, M. Z., Vazquez, G., & Suri, M. F. K. (2009). Cat ownership and the Risk of Fatal Cardiovascular Diseases. Results from the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Study Mortality Follow-up Study. Journal of vascular and interventional neurology, 2(1), 132. https://habricentral.org/resources/58614

Raina P, Waltner-Toews D, Bonnett B, Woodward C, Abernathy T (1999). Influence of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people: an analysis of a one-year longitudinal study. J Am Geriatr Soc. Mar;47(3):323-9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10078895/

Rennemark, M., Jogréus, C., Elmståhl, S., Welmer, A. K., Wimo, A., & Sanmartin-Berglund, J. (2018). Relationships Between Frequency of Moderate Physical Activity and Longevity: An 11-Year Follow-up Study. Gerontology and geriatric medicine, 4, 2333721418786565. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6055105/

Serpell, James. In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships. Cambridge University Press (Canto). First publication 1996.

Stanley, I. H., Conwell, Y., Bowen, C., & Van Orden, K. A. (2014). Pet ownership may attenuate loneliness among older adult primary care patients who live alone. Aging & Mental Health, 18(3), 394-399.

Wood L. Giles-Corti, B. & B Bulsara, M (2005). The Pet connection: Pets as a conduit for social capital? Social Science & medicine, 61 (6) HABRI Central.

Wright, J. D., Kritz-Silverstein, D., Morton, D. J., Wingard, D. L., & Barrett-Connor, E. (2007). Pet ownership and blood pressure in old age. Epidemiology, 613-618. Pet ownership and blood pressure in old age – PubMed (nih.gov)

Picture credits: compilation by Aging with Pizzazz

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