Owning a dog can be a big health boost for seniors

Walking his dog, Roscoe, on a winter day three years ago, Edgewood resident Tom McMullin fell hard to the icy ground and broke his wrist.

Mr. McMullin, now 71, didn’t blame his nearly 80-pound pit bull-terrier mix, even though he wouldn’t have been outside in hazardous conditions if not for Roscoe’s needs.

For one thing, he says the slippery sidewalk was to blame, rather than any tugging on Roscoe’s part. More important, Mr. McMullin is confident that the value of their relationship to both his emotional and physical health far outweighs any risks from it.

“It provides the framework for my daily schedule. I am doing something and going out,” and getting some walking exercise because of Roscoe, said Mr. McMullin, who is retired and divorced. A son sometimes lives with him, but much more of his time is spent with his dog. Their three walks a day bring Mr. McMullin socialization with people in the neighborhood he might not otherwise see, a benefit that supplements their own attachment indoors.

“It makes a huge difference — it’s a connection,” Mr. McMullin said. “Most of the day we’re not farther than 10 feet away from each other.”

He’s not the only older adult benefiting from having a pet. Numerous studies have suggested the value animals can bring to seniors in combating loneliness, cardiovascular problems, stress, lethargy and other symptoms that often accompany old age. With dogs, in particular, comes the additional asset of physical activity, even if the pace of the daily walks — with much sniffing and relieving involved — won’t win any Olympic medals.

University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine researchers last year found data from a broad national health study showed older adults who walk dogs have lower body mass index and fewer trips to doctors’ offices than do those without canines. Those findings and the social benefits to be derived from pets “can provide the basis for medical professionals to recommend pet ownership for older adults,” said Rebecca Johnson, director of Missouri’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

Fred Rubin, a UPMC Shadyside geriatrician and dog lover, hasn’t gone so far as to make pet adoption a prescription for any patients, and he wouldn’t recommend someone buying an animal for an older relative who hasn’t expressed an interest in taking care of a pet.

But, “I think walking a dog is very good exercise for the right person … for a person who needs the right motivation,” Dr. Rubin said.

Falls can be a concern, in that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated 86,000 fall injuries annually requiring emergency room visits are caused by pets, with dogs responsible for 88 percent of those. Such falls are particularly threatening to older adults, who have more brittle bones and are susceptible to hip fractures with often-catastrophic consequences.

Point Breeze veterinarian Lawrence Gerson said a certain amount of common sense has to apply, such as avoiding dogs that are too energetic for a frail person, and taking size into account.

“You don’t get a Great Dane or Saint Bernard for small older women,” he said.

But Dr. Gerson has had plenty of elderly clients who seem more active and motivated by virtue of caring for a pet. It even spurs some people to shorten their hospital stays, he said.

“They have somebody they know they need to care for … and being in the hospital for an extended period exposes you to more problems,” the veterinarian said. “It creates a drive in people to get home and back to their pet, and that’s a good thing.”

One hazard besides falls that affects older people in particular, Dr. Gerson noted, is the potential for harmful bites or scratches, due to their fragile skin. He said it’s thus worth considering declawing cats that belong to seniors.

Concerns also arise with older adults from the need for someone to take care of the pets if their health declines seriously, or if they die. There are always ways of dealing with such issues, the vet said, asserting they are outweighed by the positives the elderly receive in the quality of their lives.

“Lots of times, for people in their 90s that’s all they have left,” Dr. Gerson said. “Life gets tough when you get old, and when you don’t have friends and family anymore in your 80s or 90s, and life gets lonely, people are just happy to have a pet.”

For most people that age, an admission to a long-term care setting will end their relationship with animals, other than perhaps a therapy dog visit. But that’s not the case at Rolling Fields Elder Care Community in Crawford County, which embraces the idea of residents connecting to their animals.

People can bring their dogs and cats to live with them at the nursing home in Conneautville. Three dogs and twice as many cats are residents of Rolling Fields, with care plans devised for them just like for residents, said Wendy Vaughn, the culture adviser/​educator of a facility that subscribes to what’s known as the Eden Alternative of long-term care. She said if the residents are too frail to take care of the pets’ daily needs, the staff pitches in to help.

“The relationship that elders have with pets prevents them from dying from loneliness, helplessness and boredom,” Ms. Vaughn said. “Those relationships basically keep people alive and give them meaning to live.”

Some animal shelters providing pets for adoption even provide discounts to older adults as encouragement. The national Pets for the Elderly Foundation provides a grant to Animal Friends in Ohio Township that enables it to reduce fees by $50 for people over age 60 who adopt dogs older than 3 years or cats older than 20 weeks.

Mr. McMullin didn’t go through a shelter to acquire Roscoe, who is 10 or more years old. A friend in Swissvale found the low-key dog wandering loose with no identifying tags about three years ago. No one responded to posters advertising that he had been found. The friend sought Mr. McMullin’s help.

Mr. McMullin’s dog had recently died. He wasn’t planning to get another because he was getting up in years himself, but Roscoe’s own age and comportment swayed him. The owner — and presumably his pet — is glad about that now.

“Our physical and emotional needs are met,” Mr. McMullin suggested, by virtue of one another.

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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