“Walkies, let’s go!”
Dog owners know that those little three words inspire a lot of enthusiasm and excitement in their furry dog friends! But what are the pros and cons for those of us who take the plunge in older age to engage with pet ownership… Is it worth it?
First of all, full disclosure, I have been a lifelong pet owner, so am a little biased. But I have been looking at the downside of venturing down this avenue to try to give a fair account of whether it is a good idea to take on a pet after sixty.
To begin with, the pro’s, because there are many. Many studies around the world show that pets can have significant benefits for our mental and physical health at any age, but particularly in our senior years.
Owning a pet has been proven to help lower blood pressure, and stress levels. It can also lead to higher levels of serotonin (happy hormones!) lower cholesterol and fight depression. This potentially helps protect against heart disease and stroke. All scientific facts and a good reason to consider pet ownership.
We have to walk our dogs regularly. Even around the block, or a visit to the dog park can provide gentle but worthwhile activity. Cats enjoy grooming and petting, birds and fish need their environment to be cleaned and need to be fed regularly. We all know that movement and exercise are beneficial for our well-being, but it can be a whole lot more fun when doing it for and with our beloved pets.
Our pets need to be looked after on a daily basis. A reason to get out of bed on days we might not feel like getting up or just need a nudge in the right direction to get moving. Routine also works well with people with depression and can benefit those with dementia. A pet can reduce anxiety and give consistent unconditional love.
Pets don’t care how many times you tell them you love them or cuddle them. The cuddle hormone oxytocin is released after only 15 minutes of together time. We all could do with more of that happy hormone!
Many studies have shown that animals as companions decrease stress. Animals often seem to know best when you need them most. Pets live in the moment and help you live in the present.
‘Touch’ has been shown to be beneficial in so many ways so patting your dog, stroking your cat, or taking care of your smaller pet friend lessens anxiety, as well as being an enjoyable part of your day. Having a pet after a bereavement can help reduce emotional distress and give much love when you need it most.
Humans need relationships to help keep us in tip-top condition. When for one reason or another, the human variety cannot be there for us, our pets are there to fill the gap. They don’t complain as long as we feed, water and give them some love, which is more than can be said for their human counterparts on occasion!
Loneliness can be an issue in our older years. Pets can help us with this. They need and love you unconditionally. That’s a great feeling.
New friendships can be made walking the dog, or visiting the pet store, groomer or vet. Simply having a conversation with someone about your animal helps keep us socially connected. Having the cat on your lap is comforting, teaching the bird to say interesting phrases is fun (my grandfather’s budgie had a surprising number of them!). Watching fish in a tank is calm and contemplative.
Pets are a long-term commitment, so it’s wise to think about this before taking a new animal on. Who would look after your pet if you were ill, wanted to travel or even die before them? It’s worth having a plan in place for those circumstances. Have an arrangement with a friend or family member and there are some plans like the RSPCA’s Home Ever After that can help with this too.
There is no getting around it, pets can be expensive. Bedding, food, toys, habitat all add up. There are many schemes available to seniors to purchase animals from shelters that offer affordable options. And consider an older animal. They can be just as loyal and lovable and their personality is set. They are calmer and old dogs ‘can’ learn new tricks and are very last to be adopted from shelters. So, not only are you giving them a second lease of life but they can give you exactly the same incredibly satisfying bond and unconditional love that a youngster can give without all the hassles.
Seniors in NSW, for example, can purchase senior cats and dogs for 50 per cent of the usual price via RSCPA and many similar opportunities are around. Your vet can help. Pet insurance is costly, but so are trips to the vet without it. Purchasing a designer dog or cat has a big price tag, but there are thousands of options with shelters or via your local vet. And there are some opportunities to foster if you talk to your local RSPCA or similar animal supporter.
Some pensioners have been known to reduce their own living costs, to make sure their beloved pets are looked after but your own health should always be the first priority. Young puppies have considerable costs for food, vet bills, perhaps grooming, and even puppy school if you go down that route.
Cats, can also have hefty vet bills, as do most animals even smaller ones. Less so with the little varieties of course. But, fish tanks and tropical fish, birdcages etc. can be expensive too…
Apparently, statistics show that as our balance decreases, quite a lot of us over 60’s trip over our pets toys, beds and water bowls. Or walking excited dogs. So, take care!
On the downside, a pet that is terminally ill or dies who has been a long-term companion can leave a large hole in your life. I would argue that the memories and love you’ve received are compensation for this, but the heartbreak is real.
Pick your pet to suit your health and mobility. A boisterous puppy is a big ask (our 14-week-old is a real handful!). We love her, but oh my goodness, I had forgotten what a puppy is like! So, time and our age is a consideration.
Pets bring with them many benefits, but also a lot to consider. We need to think about what type, size and age of animal will suit our lifestyles best. Don’t be persuaded by a younger relative it is ‘just what you need’ as only you will know if it is. You will be looking after it, good and bad.
It can bring years of joy and company and be your non-judgmental best friend but take your time to consider if it is right for you. For us, it was. Have your pets brought you joy in later life? And what were the benefits you gained?