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Should I Get a Pet?

Animals need commitment. 50+ pet owners should weigh the pros and cons

spinner image Pets: Should You Get, or Forget It
Objectively weigh the benefits and deficits of pet ownership and then be prepared for surprises.
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Acquiring a pet of any kind in your later years is more complicated than you may expect. We asked animal-welfare experts to identify the pros and cons of becoming a pet owner at 50+.

Pro: "You will never be bored or lonely if you have a companion animal at home," says PETA's Rachel Bellis. Her sentiment is amplified by Carlyn Montes De Oca, author of Dog as My Doctor, Cat as My Nurse: "An animal companion in your life gives you a strong sense of purpose. Dogs and cats make us take care of them, and that makes us take care of ourselves."

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Con: It's a commitment — of money, of energy, of time. "If you've never had a pet before," notes Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club, "it can be daunting. And even with a rescue animal, you need resources. Do you have the funds to feed the animal and cover its basic health care? What about emergencies?"

Pro: Whether you adopt through a shelter or a breed-specific rescue league, you are very likely saving an animal's life. "We're in a pet-overpopulation crisis," says Bellis. "More than 6 million animals are at risk of going into a shelter in the U.S. every year; of those, roughly half will be euthanized."

Con: Certain animals may outlive you. "The life expectancy of a kitten is 15 to 20 years," says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA Adoption Center. So craft a backup plan: "People of any age should make provisions in writing in case something happens to you or your family," says the AKC's Klein. "Think of it as a living will for your pet."

When Finny Met Danny

I'm a Vietnam vet, and when I got liver cancer I knew I was going to be ill for a long while. I figured if I was going to be sick, I wanted a dog to keep me company. I decided the ideal dog would be old, weigh about 100 pounds and enjoy lazing around in bed with me. So I went to the Humane Society and told them exactly what I was looking for.

They brought me back to look at the available dogs. A 3-month-old, 4-inch-tall mouse of a dog walked up to me and looked me straight in the eyes. I took one look and said, "That's my dog!" Everyone laughed: I'm 6-7, and this dog could have fit inside my shoe. I didn't care; Finn picked me, and I fell in love with him. Throughout my year-long illness, my new pug-dachshund-terrier-Chihuahua was my doctor, my nurse and my companion. He was also my empathy: He knew exactly how I felt, what I needed in the moment, what was best for me.

When I felt nauseous and weak, he would put his head under my chin, and we would both go to sleep. When I felt better, he would play with me. Now that I've recovered, we go horseback riding together. Finn's too small to walk beside the horses, so I put him in my saddlebag. Finny sits in the bag with his head poking out; it looks like I'm riding around with a squirrel. —adapted with permission from Dog as My Doctor, Cat as My Nurse: An Animal Lover's Guide to a Healthy, Happy, and Extraordinary Life by Carlyn Montes De Oca

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Pro: A pet can perk you up. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. A study from the University of Missouri even found that older people are likelier to take regular walks when their walking partner is a dog.

Con: Certain pets are simply the wrong choice for your lifestyle. "My grandfather got a cockapoo puppy at 72," says Brandi Hunter of the AKC, "and that suited him just fine. But if you're training for a marathon, you might want a collie."

To avoid a mismatch, Montes De Oca advises, do a lifestyle assessment before you adopt a pet: "Are you a dynamo, or is yoga more your style? The answer will tell you what breed to favor." And if you have any mobility issues, suggests Barbara Moffet of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, Va., "you might consider getting a cat, a rabbit or a guinea pig, instead of a dog."

Pro: Once you've rationally, objectively weighed the benefits and deficits of pet ownership, be prepared for surprises: What if an animal chooses you? Come to think of it, this phase of life may be the ideal time to let our emotions reign. As Klein puts it, "When I got my first dog in the 1960s, its food was 'chow,' and pets were considered livestock. But we now know that they are members of our family."

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