Having a pet can help older adults cope with mental and physical health issues, according to a US poll which showed that owning an animal lowers stress and gives people a sense of purpose.
While pets come with benefits, they can also bring concerns, and some people may even put their animals' needs ahead of their own health, the poll found. In all, 55 per cent of adults ages 50 to 80 have a pet, according to the new findings -- and more than half of those have multiple pets.
More than three-quarters of pet owners say their animals reduce their stress, and nearly as many say pets give them a sense of purpose. However, 18 per cent also said having a pet or pets puts a strain on their budget.
Two-thirds of all pet owners, and 78 per cent of dog owners, said their pet helps them be physically active, according to the findings from University of Michigan in the US.
For those who reported that their health was fair or poor, pet ownership appeared to offer even more benefits. More than 70 per cent of these older adults said their pet helps them cope with physical or emotional symptoms, and 46 per cent said their pets help take their mind off of pain.
"We have long known that pets are a common and naturally occurring source of support," said Cathleen Connell, a professor at University of Michigan.
"Although the benefits of pets are significant, social connections and activities with friends and family are also key to quality of life across the lifespan," Connell said.
"Helping older adults find low cost ways to support pet ownership while not sacrificing other important relationships and priorities is an investment in overall mental and physical health," she said.
The poll results indicates a need for physicians and other health care providers to ask older adults about the role of pets in their lives. More than half of those who owned pets said they did so specifically to have a companion -- and a slightly higher percentage said their pets sleep in bed with them.
Sixty-five per cent of pet owners said having a pet helps connect them to other people, too. "Relationships with pets tend to be less complicated than those with humans, and pets are often a source of great enjoyment," said Mary Janevic, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan. "They also provide older adults with a sense of being needed and loved," Janevic said.
One in six said that they put their pet's needs ahead of their own health needs -- a figure that was closer to one in four among those with health issues. "Later life is often a time when people have more freedom to travel, and a long list of things they want to do with their free time, and sometimes having a pet can get in the way," said Janevic.