Research has established that dogs can contribute to the psychological and physical health of their owners (click here or click here to read more about that). The positive effects of pet ownership seem to be particularly marked when one looks at older people. For example seniors who own dogs tend to require less medical attention, and are only one quarter as likely to develop clinical levels of depression than if they are living alone. There are also marked physical benefits, for example one study looked at individuals older than 55 who had had their first heart attack. When their health was tracked over a period of four years, it was found that those who owned dogs were more than twice as likely to still be alive. For reasons such as these, it is often recommended that seniors who otherwise would be socially isolated should get a dog as a pet. However, a number of animal shelters have adopted policies to prevent the adoption of pets by elderly individuals (click here to read more about that). The shelters' arguments are twofold: first that if the older person dies the dog will effectively be orphaned, and second that older individuals are too fragile and disorganized to adequately care for their dog. I found these arguments to be unconvincing, but unfortunately there was no data concerning the welfare of dogs owned by elderly people at the time. Science does eventually get around to answering the relevant questions, and a recent study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research* provides data that challenges the policies of animal shelters that bar pet adoptions by seniors.
Elisa Pitteri headed a team of researchers from the University of Padova, in Italy. They recruited 222 people from two northern Italian cities (Padova, with a population of about 200,000, and Bologna, with about 380,000 inhabitants), and divided them into three groups. One group of 74 participants consisted of adults (18 to 64 years of age) drawn from the suburbs and rural areas around the cities. Another was a group of 74 elderly people drawn from the same area but all over 65 years of age. The final group of 74 was also over 65 years of age but were living in the downtown area of the cities. It was required that the owner and the dog had to have lived together for at least six months to be included in the test groups.
Information about how the dog was cared for, including what it was fed, veterinary visits, inoculations and so forth was collected by questionnaires, and a further questionnaire was given to measure the degree of attachment or bonding that the person felt for the dog. Since the issue is the welfare of the pet, the dog was also given a complete veterinary examination.
The data is presented in a somewhat awkward fashion, with few tables presenting all three groups together, however, with a little bit of effort one can reorganize their findings to make them clearer and more easily interpretable. The main results of the study are very straightforward. Age does not make much difference when it comes to the welfare of the dogs, and if anything, the quality of life for the pet depends more upon the living context (center city versus rural or suburban). If we start by comparing the suburban adult group to the elderly suburban group we find only two significant differences. The first is that the suburban elderly individuals take their pets to the veterinarian slightly less frequently (3 versus 4 visits per year) however the elderly dog owners living in the city's center take their dogs to see the vet slightly more than the adult group (5 versus 4 visits per year). The suburban elderly group are also found to be a bit less likely to have treated their dogs for parasites then either the adult or central city elderly. When all other measures of pet health are considered there is no other difference between the adult and the suburban elderly group. However, on most of the other measures it is the elderly group living in the center of the city who care for their dogs the best, in terms of diet, brushing, and exercising the dogs.
The final set of measures had to do with the owner's attachment and bonding with their dog. There was no difference between the suburban adult group and the suburban elderly group in terms of their attachment; however the elderly group living in the city's center showed a higher degree of attachment and bonding with their pet then either of the other groups.
So that is what the science says — basically there is little or no difference in the care and welfare of dogs owned by elderly individuals compared to the general adult population. If anything a dog who was lucky enough to have been adopted by an elderly person living in the center of an urban area is likely to be better loved and better cared for than if it were adopted by an adult living in a rural or suburban setting. Yet I still receive emails from people who are frustrated because a local animal shelter has refused to let them adopt a dog simply because they, or the person who they are adopting the dog for, is older than 65 years of age…
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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* Elisa Pitteri, Paolo Mongillo, Serena Adamelli, Sabrina Bonichini, Lieta Marinelli (2014). The quality of life of pet dogs owned by elderly people depends on the living context, not on the owner's age. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (2), 72-77.