While dogs have commonly been known as “man’s best friend,” in reality any animal can fill that role for your elderly or disabled loved one.
Several studies have proven the positive impact of companion animals on coping with chronic conditions and treatment of illnesses such as heart disease, dementia, and cancer1. According to The Journal of Family Process2, companion animals have the ability to provide important human needs, such as self-cohesion,self-esteem, calmness, soothing, and acceptance.
Depending on your loved one’s interests and abilities, a particular type of pet may be best suited to accompany them in their home. The right pet can greatly decrease your loved one’s feelings of loneliness by providing them with a companion and friend who is always by their side.
If your loved one isn’t getting enough exercise, a dog can help encourage them to walk more often, which can be a great source of aerobic activity. Studies have shown that frequent dog-walking has health benefits through increased physical activity and a heightened sense of community1. If your loved one is unable to participate in the walking required by a dog, smaller household pets such as cats, birds, rabbits, or rodents can be more fitting options. Playing with and caring for these smaller animals can also provide your loved one with needed physical activity in a manner that requires less mobility.
An animal that requires time outside, such as a dog or outdoor cat, can help motivate your loved one to get fresh air. If your loved one is unable to travel outdoors as often as these animals might require, small animals that do not need time outdoors can be a better option. A caged bird can be a good option for housebound individuals, as their sounds often help to bring the outdoors in. Companion birds have been found to alleviate depression, loneliness, and morale in older adults2.
According to The British Journal of Community Nursing1, people’s relationships with their companion animals can also improve their emotional health. Spending time with animals can have a calming effect on people and can decrease your loved one’s stress level. This positive effect often stems from petting the animal or other forms of physical contact. According to The Journal of Family Process2, simply stroking a pet significantly reduces blood pressure and interactions with animals increases neurochemicals associated with relaxation. Pets should be screened for friendliness before being brought home to your loved one.
Caring for an animal may also help your loved one take better care of themselves, as they may feel that the animal is counting on them. The British Journal of Community Nursing1 explains that a companion animal can contribute to a sense of meaning in everyday life by diverting attention from the individual’s ailments and increasing positive thoughts. The companion animal can also help to motivate individuals to complete daily activities and take on responsibilities1.
With a pet comes responsibility. You should ensure that your loved one is willing and able to care for the animal before bringing it into their home. You should be sure to research types of animals along with their breeds to find the best fit. The interests and abilities of your loved one can be a determining factor in what type of animal is best suited for their home environment. The age of an animal should also be taken into consideration, as a young animal may be untrained and have too much energy for your loved one to handle. More mature animals are often trained and may be easier for your loved one to care for.
You should discuss with your loved one the possible benefits of bringing a new pet into their home and ensure they are ready to take on the subsequent responsibilities. A pet should not be adopted into a home where it will not be properly cared for. If your loved one does not show interest in having a pet, adoption of an animal may not be appropriate in your situation.
1Johansson, M., Ahlstrom, G., & Jonsson, A.C. (2014). Living with companion animals after stroke: Experiences of older people in community and primary care nursing. British Journal of Community Nursing, 19(2), 578-584.
2Walsh, F. (2009). Human-Animal bonds I: The relational significance of companion animals. Family Process, 48(4), 462-480.