Owning a Cat is Good for Your Health – Especially for Seniors
There are more more than 95 million “owned” cats (cats as pets) in the US, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Cat owners have long felt that feline companionship had both physical and mental benefits, and science is now backing up some of those claims. Senior care centers are also taking notice and allowing residents to keep a cat with them (see below).
Pets Increase Activity Levels
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported on a study about the effects of pets on the elderly’s activity daily levels (ADL). The ADL is the amount of activity (such as getting out of bed, walking, sitting and mild exercise) that seniors voluntarily do during a typical day. The study showed that the ADL of those without a pet declined slightly in a one-year period. Those people who owned a pet either maintained or increased their ADL in the same period. Seniors with a higher ADL enjoy an increased feeling of good health and fewer medical issues.
Cats and Heart Health
Another study reported by the NIH found that owning a cat can actually be good for your heart. They studied 4,435 people, more than half of whom owned cats. The results showed a decreased risk of heart attack, heart disease and stroke in people with cats. Pets can lower blood pressure and heart rates. In one study over 20 years, non-cat owning people were 40% more likely to die of a heart attack than those who had cared for a cat.
AHA Endorses Pet Ownership
There was enough evidence from various research that the American Heart Association issued a statement saying that pet ownership could reduce heart disease, thanks to the owners’ lowered blood pressure and increased levels of physical activity. Owners’ lipid levels improved, as did muscle tone. There was also a noticeable decrease in the pet owner’s stress response.
In the elderly, these benefits can be found just by petting a cat or playing with one. The responsibility of pet ownership gave seniors a feeling of purpose, especially as they talked about how to take care of the pet. This mental exercise also appeared to increase their alertness.
Other Cat Benefits Need Further Research
Discovery News notes that other studies point to cats being beneficial in preventing cancer and reducing respiratory illness. They say that while the studies are inconclusive, there are indications that warrant further study.
In one NIH study, pet owners were evaluated against the risk of getting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. They found that the longer a person owned a dog or cat, the lower the risk of getting this cancer. Another study showed that for people with pets in the home while growing up, the lower the risk of respiratory disease. If these studies are correct, then cat ownership by a senior could also benefit them by reducing these health risks.
Cats in Senior Care Facilities
In response to some of these studies, some senior living centers are allowing residents to own cats. For example, many of the assisted living facilities in Mesa, Ariz., permit pet owners to bring their pets with them. They recognize that the pet/owner bond is strong and produces good feelings. Along with the psychological benefit, the research shows that the elderly can also experience a real physical health benefit, too.
In fact, to separate an elderly person from her cat, for example, when moving to a senior living center (care home in the UK), is potentially bad for the well-being of the person and cat. Therefore, where possible and practical the two should stay together.
In the USA, federal housing laws ensure that residents living in publicly-run facilities are allowed to keep their animal companions provided they can care for them. Private organisations are not bound by the same rules but do sometimes follow them while adding their own procedures and rules.
There is obviously a need for some sort of overall management of companion animals at senior care facilities because residents live close together and cats are territorial and require as much settling in as their caretaker. The ideal is for residents to share the company of one or two companion animals.
ADL stands for “activities of daily living” and is a term used by therapists, especially occupational therapists to talk about the basic, necessary tasks of self care such as getting out of bed, bathing, dressing, using the toilet, combing/brushing hair, caring for teeth/dentures, and anything else necessary to support a healthy life. I believe that seniors with a pet would have higher FIM scores for most ADL’s (FIM scores measure functional independence) than those without pets. Having to care for someone else can play a vital role in maintaining function. FIM scores also measure gait, and someone who has to walk a dog every day will be more active and will preserve abilities longer than the person who decides he is “too old” for exercise and chooses a more sedentary lifestyle.
My great grandma was totally independent until her son, who had Down Syndrome, had to go into a home. She went rapidly downhill without the responsibility to care for him. She started just eating candy all the time since she was no longer responsible to cook for him.
Pets could serve a similar function, providing that connection and responsibility which can stave off dementia for a time. The pet is a vital reason to keep trying to hold onto independence by taking care of yourself. The inevitable comes to us all– but we remain functional, fulfilled and happy a lot longer while we have those who need us and love us close by.