Recent Study Says Pets Can Help Seniors with Pain

Randy Arsenault of Punta Gorda, Florida, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. Following a series of painful surgeries, his daughter decided to help him with recovery. She gave Arsenault a cat.

“We became best buddies,” says Arsenault, 70. “He never left my side, especially when I wasn’t feeling well — he had that sense of when he was needed. His companionship nursed me through.”

Arsenault’s experience aligns with the surprising findings of a 2019 study. While it’s well known that pets can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and increase social interaction and physical activity, a study from the University of Michigan shows that pets can also help seniors deal with physical pain.

The National Poll on Healthy Aging, published in April 2019, surveyed more than 2,000 adults ages 50 to 80, about 55 percent of whom had pets. Of pet owners surveyed who were in fair or poor health, about half said that their pets helped take their mind off their pain.

In addition, 62 percent of owners said their pets helped them stick to a routine. “Even if you’re dealing with bad pain, you have a pet that needs you and relies on you to take care of it,” says Mary Janevic, Ph.D., an associate research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who helped design the poll. “It gives you a sense of purpose every day.”

Janevic also led a smaller, related study that showed other benefits. “People noted that just having a pet close by, whether it’s a cat purring on your lap or a dog who’s sticking by your side, can be soothing and relaxing,” she says. She adds that pets also provide distractions by being funny or endearing.

Dogs and cats can also help with owners whose pain may cause them to isolate themselves, says Janevic. “Pets can help you facilitate social connections, like interacting with others while taking your dog for a walk or talking to a neighbor in the backyard.”

Pet ownership among people of all ages has been associated with reduced stress, lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, faster recovery during mental stress, and longer-term survival in people who suffer heart attacks. A 2019 study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, a journal of the American Heart Association, says that dog ownership may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Some psychologists have even noted pets’ ability to boost memory and recall in aging owners.

“Pets just tend to keep people more engaged with life,” Janevic says. “That kind of engagement has been associated with better cognitive functioning. We had one older gentleman explain how, because of his dog’s health issues, he forced himself to learn to use Google and the internet to research his pet’s problems. So you’re keeping yourself cognitively and socially engaged.”

Some findings have also indicated a link between pet ownership and reduced depression for older adults. This was certainly the case for Judith Carpenzano of Brooklyn, New York, who was lonely and depressed after her husband passed away. That’s when her family swooped in with a surprise.

“My son said, ‘Mom, sit down, we have something for you.’ I thought they were going to tell me they were having another kid,” she recalls. “Then I looked and there was this white little furry thing.” She fell in love with Griffen, an 11-year-old bichon.

“For me, living alone, he’s company,” Carpenzano says. “I’m happier — not lonely. I walk with him, so I’m definitely more active. Before, who would I talk to? Now I meet people walking their dogs, and we compare notes.”

But Janevic points out that pets aren’t for everybody. “Adopting any pet is a complicated decision,” she says. “Just like people have different temperaments, pets do too. Some people will say, ‘My dog or my cat seems to know exactly when I’m in pain and will stay close and cuddle.’ Others will laugh and say, ‘Mine will never do that.’ It depends on the animal.”

Janevic notes that pets get old and have health problems too, which can pose financial hardship. A small number of poll respondents said they’d been injured by a pet (a fall, scratch, etc.), and some reported that pet ownership restricted their ability to travel or enjoy activities outside the home.

If you’d like to experience the health benefits of pets without owning one yourself, there’s good news: Even occasional interactions with pets (such as informal visits with friends’ animals or volunteering at a shelter) have been shown to increase quality of life and decrease depression in older adults.

3 ways to get your pet fix

1. Volunteer at a shelter. Most shelters have various volunteer roles, like walking dogs or visiting with and even reading to cats and dogs. The benefits go both ways: Those interactions have been shown to reduce the animals’ anxiety and make them more adoptable.

2. Be a pet sitter. Offer to do this for family and friends or sign up with a company that provides pet sitters.

3. Visit a dog park. You’ll meet friendly dogs, enjoy exercise and fresh air, and meet new people.