Amazing Pets – Saving Senior’s Lives

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Q. My mother, Jessica, lives alone and is considering adopting a pet.  I am all in favor, but know it is a lot of work and vet visits are often expensive. For me, these things are certainly worth it.  Despite the grooming costs, the heartworm pills, and the occasional sick visit, I wouldn’t give up my poodles for the world, and have heard some amazing stories about how pets have saved seniors lives.

Besides being cuddly and comforting, my mother read recently that cats can help stave off depression and isolation, and dogs help motivate people to exercise. Are there any other benefits to seniors having pets?

A. People over the age of 65 who live alone are particularly vulnerable to loneliness and stress-related diseases, and can reap enormous benefits from having a pet. Pets have been proven to reduce high blood pressure, relieve anxiety, promote longer lives, and help with all of the ailments described below:

  • Diabetes: People who live with diabetes are vulnerable to collapse from low blood sugar, which can lead to a diabetic coma. According to Dogs4Diabetics, between 2 and 6% of type 1 diabetics will die from low blood sugar.
  • Diabetes service dogs, also known as diabetes alert dogs, are trained to retrieve phones, fetch, and carry objects such as bottles of juice, test breath for glucose, and even act as an arm rail for someone who’s fallen down.
  • Veterans: According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA), more than 200,000 U.S. service members have been diagnosed with a brain injury in the last 10 years, and tens of thousands more suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Service dogs are finding a new purpose as companions to veterans sidelined by disabilities, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Visit Pets for Vets, Hero Dogs, VetDogs, or Freedom Dogs for more details.
  • Cancer: Specially-trained dogs have been found to know by smell when someone has lung, colon, or even skin cancer. The most recent research on cancer-detecting dogs, published in the European Respiratory Journal in 2011, found that four trained dogs were able to detect cancer in 71 of 100 samples from lung cancer patients. Cats have also been known to alert their owners to breast cancer and lung cancer. In one case reported by the CBC news in Winnipeg, Canada, a newly-arrived stray cat jumped repeatedly against a woman’s chest until she had her doctor check her for breast cancer, at which point it turned out she had a tiny tumor in the exact spot the cat had indicated.
  • Alzheimer’s: Therapy dogs can provide important comfort, companionship, and a sense of connection for those isolated by Alzheimer’s and dementia. Mara Baun has been documenting the therapeutic effects of dogs on dementia patients at the University of Houston School of Nursing for more than a decade. According to Baun, people with dementia had fewer episodes of disorientation, wandering, and aggression when a dog was present. Also, at the University of Nebraska, researchers found that dogs can provide relief from sundown syndrome, in which those with Alzheimer’s become confused and agitated as the light changes at the end of the day.
  • Seizures: Seizure response dogs alert others to their owners’ seizures, while seizure alert or seizure predicting dogs are more specially trained to be on the alert for signs of an impending seizure. Also, having a devoted dog by their side helps those with seizure disorders feel safer and more secure.
  • Stroke, Choking, or Fire: Owners of parrots, cockatiels, and other birds have credited their beloved pets with sounding the alarm when their owners had a stroke, choked, or were in danger from fire or thieves. In Essex, England, a 17-year-old cockatiel named Budgie saved his owner by alerting the owner’s wife when he suffered a stroke, according to the Daily Telegraph.
  • Terminal Illness: Cats may be able to alert nursing home staff when a patient is terminally ill. One cat, Oscar, accurately predicted more than 50 deaths. Adopted as a kitten by a nursing home to be a service companion for those with advanced dementia, Oscar was only about six months old when the staff started finding him curled up next to particular patients who then died within a few hours or days. Scientists concluded that cats like Oscar are likely responding to a pheromone that the human sense of smell can’t detect. You can read more about Oscar in the book, “Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat,” by David Dosa.

The SPCA also reported recently that in a study of 100 Medicare patients, even the most highly-stressed dog owner had 21% fewer physicians visits than any non-dog-owner. In addition, seniors who own pets are more likely to keep up with daily activities, have better overall physical health due to exercising with their pets, and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than those living without pets.

November is Adopt a Senior Pet Month, and there’s still one week left to make a difference for older pets. Check out research compiled by Pets for the Elderly, a non-profit, on additional benefits of pet ownership for seniors. Visit “The Senior Dogs Project” website that discusses the benefits of senior dogs for seniors and read Ten Reasons Senior Cats Rule on the Petfinder.com website.  From personal experience, I can tell you that the tuxedo cat that Jeannie and I adopted from our local animal shelter when he was 9-years old is the most gentle and loving animal that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and has brought incredible joy to our lives and the lives of our two other rescued cats at home.

Don’t Forget about the Pet

Many of us who think of our pets as family members want to ensure that they are cared for after we become incapable of doing so. One way to fulfill this responsibility is to set up a pet trust, or a legally sanctioned arrangement that provides for the care and maintenance of your pet(s) in the event of their your disability or death. For more details, read the Pet Trust FAQ on our Website.

Please call 703-691-1888 in Fairfax, 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg, or 202-587-2797 to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation. If you come to the Fairfax office, be sure to visit with all of the therapy animals who live here, including Saki and Alley (our Siamese cats), Ernie and Jannette (our African Dwarf Frogs), and Commander Bun Bun (our lop-eared love bunny). And be sure to follow our “Critter Corner” column that appears most Fridays in our weekly “Ask the Expert” newsletter.

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