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Companion for Life: The Many Benefits of Pet Ownership

The many ways adopting a pet is good for your health and wellbeing

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Pam Vassil was 64 when she adopted her first dog. As a busy communications executive, she had previously owned a fish.

“It was nice to come home, check on and feed the fish,” she said. “But I really wanted a dog.”

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She went to Animal Haven, an animal rescue in New York City, bonding with four-year-old Pumpkin, a Corgi Lab mix.

“It was my birthday present to me,” Vassil said. “I’d walk him a gazillion times a day. It took awhile until I understood his needs. Then we fell into a routine and fell in love with each other.”

Pumpkin lived until 14, his last two years with cancer. After he died, Vassil said, she couldn’t stand being without a dog. Now retired, she researched rescue dogs online. She connected with one-year-old Baker, a Beagle Lab mix who’d just had a litter of puppies. Vassil took her out for a walk and adopted her soon after.

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It took some acclimation. Baker had lived in the rural south and had to adjust to city concrete sidewalks.

“Sometimes I walked her for two hours while she tried to find a place to pee,” Vassil said. “I lost a lot of weight.”

That’s just one of the perks of being an older pet owner.

Health benefits of animal ownership

Pets are cute, but they can also create significant — and sometimes surprising — health benefits, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Imagine lowering your blood pressure, reducing loneliness, getting daily exercise and feeling happier all in one furry package.

Current research says benefits to owning a pet include stress relief, maintaining a routine, increased socializing, enhanced brain health, providing companionship and building a sense of purpose.

 “The payoff extends to weight control, improved cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular strength, lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels,” reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Pet owners can also find relief from anxiety and PTSD.

For older adults, pets are particularly beneficial health-wise. The CDC has found that seniors with pets gain opportunities for exercise, better cognitive function and opportunities to socialize. Solo agers benefit even more by having a pet that delivers unconditional love and is someone to talk to.

Service animals provide similar health benefits. They are “specifically trained to provide support for people with certain disabilities,” explains the Cleveland Clinic. They can help you cross the street safely and have saved the lives of people with chronic illnesses.

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For those who are immobile or who cannot manage to walk their dog, a small dog who can use indoor pee pads or a senior dog may be a solution, suggests “These lucky animals go from the pound to paradise.”

Cats are also an option. They require less maintenance, are independent, clean themselves and are calmer and quieter than dogs while also having a positive impact on physical and mental well-being. 

Reducing the financial impact

But it may be harder to own a pet on a fixed budget. Shelter and rescue communities are trying to alleviate that obstacle.

When it came time to have Baker neutered, the ASPCA gave Vassil a “senior rate” of $40 for spaying, shots and nail clipping.

Places like North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, New York, has a Seniors for Seniors® program. Adoption counselors work with each person, reducing fees for adoption, grooming, pet food, annual vaccinations and wellness exams. The Pets for the Elderly Foundation, another placement organization, also helps pay adoption fees for people 60 and over who adopt a companion dog or cat from participating animal shelters.

Pet insurance may also reduce medical costs when medical services are needed.

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Pet stores can also offer ways to make pet ownership more affordable.

“I’d go into Petco and tell them I’m retired; did they have any specials?” Vassil recalled. “They gave me discounts.”

How to find the right pet

You’ve heard of the push to adopt, not shop. Many rescue shelters are overwhelmed with strays and owner surrenders. Many of those animals are already house-broken or know commands. All of them are just looking for a safe home and a human companion.

If you’re ready to take in a pet, here is advice on how to select the right one for your lifestyle:

  • Know the best breed for your personality and mobility. Small Jack Russell Terriers are high energy while other breeds like Shih Tzu, Bichon Frise, Toy Poodle, and Pug are more docile. A good resource is Happy Hound: Develop a Great Relationship with your Adopted Dog or Puppy by Susan Daffron.
  • Consider your budget. Shelters are less expensive than breeders. Fish are cheaper to raise than dogs.
  • Senior dogs can be less expensive to adopt, plus you might be saving that dog’s life.
  • Search reputable adoption places that have fostering programs. You can ask the foster dog owner questions about the dog’s personality and health.
  • Talk to the shelter staff. They know each animal’s personality.
  • Make sure the shelter or rescue has done a complete medical workup including a list of vaccinations.
  • Count on support from family and friends.

When Vassil had both knees replaced—boarding Pumpkin after the first surgery and relying on dog walkers with the second — she found greater incentive to work on her recovery.

“My dogs motivated me to get well quicker,” she says.

She also found her neighbors willing to take Baker on walks to cut down on dog walking fees. “Even now, my neighbor calls if it’s snowy and icy outside to ask if I need him to walk my dog,” she said.

Share your experience: How has owning a pet changed your life? Tell us in the comments below.

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