Creature Comforts: The Many Benefits of Pet Ownership for Seniors

Discover how a furry friend improves health and learn about pet ownership in senior living.

June 17, 2024

6 min read

two female residents enjoying the company of their pets

As animal lovers know, a pet makes a wonderful companion – no matter your age. But for older adults, the emotional rewards and health benefits are especially impactful. For those living alone – as well as for those in senior living communities – animal companionship can significantly improve health and quality of life.

How pets improve senior health

Owning a pet provides numerous physical, cognitive and emotional health benefits for older adults.

Two Atria residents showing off their pets

Provide companionship

At a time when many experience shrinking social circles and fewer opportunities for social engagement (nearly half of older adults say they often feel lonely or isolated), pets offer reliable companionship. Studies show that seniors with pets are 36% less likely to report experiencing loneliness than those without pets. And because loneliness is linked to many other health issues older adults experience – such as cognitive decline, high blood pressure and decreased longevity – having a pet helps enhance overall health in many ways.

Atria residents photographed with their furry companions

Overall health and well-being benefits

Pet ownership has been linked to lower blood pressure and decreased cholesterol levels. Petting a dog or cat can have a calming effect, which creates endorphins that lower stress levels. Many older adults also experience a boost in self-esteem and a renewed sense of purpose from the emotional bond they form with their animal companion. Even some passive activities, like watching fish in a tank or listening to birds chirp, have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.

Atria resident with furry companion enjoying the outdoors

Cognitive benefits

Activities like teaching a dog tricks or playing with a cat can stimulate the brain. Even talking to a pet can help maintain cognitive health – a recent study found that pet ownership helps offset the declining rates of verbal memory and verbal fluency that accompany aging.

Pets can be particularly helpful for older adults with dementia, who sometimes become agitated when trying to communicate with other people. Forming an emotional bond with a dog or cat is less taxing and isn’t as reliant on language or memory.

Atria residents enjoying an afternoon walk with their dogs

More opportunities to be active

Because they provide an opportunity to get out of the house and go for walks or hikes, dogs make especially good companions for older people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults over 65 get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week, and adhering to a regular exercise routine is one of the most important steps a person can take to stay physically fit. Taking daily walks improves cardiovascular fitness, lowers blood pressure and strengthens the muscle groups that help maintain good balance and mobility. Having a dog to keep you company can make your walks more enjoyable while also establishing a daily walking routine. The best dogs for seniors include a wide range of breeds, sizes and demeanors.

Atria residents photographed with their furry companions

Social benefits

Forming and maintaining meaningful social connections improves emotional well-being, increases mental alertness and helps older adults live longer. Studies suggest that seniors who walk their dogs regularly tend to have more social interactions with others. And visiting dog parks can provide a sense of community, giving older adults a chance to bond with other dog owners.

Atria residents photographed with their furry companions

Pet ownership in senior living communities

The benefits of owning a pet for seniors living alone also apply to seniors living in an independent or assisted living community. There’s no shortage of options when it comes to seeking senior living that allows pets.

Many senior living communities warmly welcome pets, including most Atria Senior Living communities. There are some restrictions on what pets are allowed – the pet can’t present a risk of harm to other members of the community, and undomesticated or exotic pets like snakes are often prohibited – but most communities accept dogs and cats.

When searching for pet-friendly senior living, consider what kinds of accommodations will best suit the needs of you and your pet. For example: cat owners may want to make sure scratching posts and tree towers are permitted, fish owners will need space for an aquarium in their apartment and dog owners will want access to nearby outdoor space for taking walks.

Some senior and assisted living communities feature specially constructed outdoor spaces for pet owners and other residents to enjoy. At Atria Rancho Mirage in Southern California, the community dog park serves as a hub of social activity for residents while also giving their dogs plenty of space to run around.

“The dog park is basically the neighborhood backyard for our community,” says Claudia Castillo, the Engage Life Director at Atria Rancho Mirage. “Dog owners bring their furry friends there to run around while they connect and hang out with other residents.”

Many Atria Rancho Mirage residents chose the community specifically because of its dog park.

“I love having a place where I can play catch with my dog,” says Atria resident Michael M. “It’s a great workout for her and for me.”

Senior living communities can also provide alternative forms of animal companionship for non-pet owners. Some assisted living communities have “community pets” living on-site, allowing residents to enjoy many of the benefits of pet ownership without having to take on the related responsibilities. Communities may also feature pet therapy for seniors through outside vendors, where animal companions like dogs, cats and birds visit with residents on a regular basis.

If you’re planning on owning a pet in a senior living community, here are some guidelines and tips to keep in mind.

  • Find out what monthly and/or one-time fees pet owners are responsible for
  • If you have more than one pet, find out if there is a limit to how many pets residents can have
  • Ask if there’s a limit to the total number of pets allowed to live in the community at once
  • The pet’s shots and vaccinations must be up to date
  • Make sure you can take care of the pet yourself
  • Look into any services or third-party vendors that can help you manage responsibilities like regular grooming, dog walking and vet visits
  • Ensure you have a family member or friend who’s willing and able to assume ownership in the event you are no longer able to take care of your pet

Atria residents photographed with their furry companions

A meaningful bond with lifelong benefits

From providing companionship and emotional support to encouraging physical activities and social connections, pets can have a profound impact on the health and well-being of older adults. Whether you already have an animal companion or you’re looking for a new furry friend, your pet can help keep you healthy and happy as you age.

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