Health Column: Senior pets are best for senior people

Shoshire Kennels co-owner Dwayne Early of Aquebogue and his two-year-old long-haired Chihuahua Lady Gaga last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
Shoshire Kennels co-owner Dwayne Early of Aquebogue and his long-haired Chihuahua Lady Gaga last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

The rolling purr of a cat or sloppy kisses of a dog are a simple signs of affection that can go a long way for people, providing pet owners with a sense of companionship and something to look forward to when coming home to an otherwise empty house.

Health experts have long been studying the benefits of introducing an animal into the home. And though there are some downsides, such as a potential trip and fall, those studies have found health effects on senior citizens to be beneficial overall.

Senior pet owners are less lonely and less fearful and have a greater self-esteem, according to a 2011 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A study conducted in 2014 by Purdue University School of Nursing found that animals help to ease depression and can actually improve nutritional well-being by helping to keep people on regular eating schedules.

Several other studies have touted animals’ ability to ease stress and lower their owners’ blood pressure.

So older people whose kids have all flown the nest, a pet may be a good way to bring a little more joy and activity into the home — and health to the heart. The trick is finding the right pet that fits your lifestyle.

The North Fork Animal Welfare League, which operates shelters in Southold and Riverhead,has a program that pairs senior pets, aged 8 and above, with senior residents. Senior animals have fully developed personalities and temperaments and are often calmer than kittens and puppies, said Gillian Wood Pultz, NFAWL’s executive director.

She said the nonprofit pledges to support the new family and take away some of the hassle of pet ownerships. NFAWL will cover adoption fees and provide free at-home animal training by appointment. It will also deliver pet food monthly to eliminate the stress of shopping and provide transportation to and from a veterinarian to ensure that furry friends remain healthy.

Riverhead resident Ellen Berger, 68, and her husband, Steve, 70, took advantage of the program this year, adopting senior pup Glynda, a German shepherd mix.

“She is just a joy,” Ms. Berger said. “In 10 months she has become such apart of our lives, we couldn’t imagine life without her.”

Ms. Berger said Glynda has helped keep her and her husband moving, going on walks several times a day. She added that the walks, and Glynda’s friendly demeanor, have helped the couple meet new people in the area.

“You get out to see the neighborhood, to meet your neighbors,” she said. “She’s friendly so people stop and they talk to her and she’s calm. I think that’s what you would get with a senior dog. A calmness you wouldn’t [otherwise] get.”

Ms. Berger, who is also a cat owner, said she would certainly recommend the program.

“I know that I would not walk nearly as much as I do if I didn’t have her,” she said. “When we leave she is always at the door greeting us.”

She said potential pet owners “really have to decide what their lifestyle is and how you would incorporate a dog or cat into it.”

It took the couple about six months to find the right dog, Ms. Berger said.

To inquire about a senior pet, call the Riverhead shelter at 369-6189 or the Southold shelter at 765-1811 and ask about the Seniors for Seniors program.

Got a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @carriemiller01.Miller_Headshot