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Animal Behavior

Animal Shelters Say "No Puppies or Kittens for the Elderly!"

Should elderly people be barred from adopting pets?

I recently received an e-mail which I found to be quite disturbing. The person writing to me had heard a talk that I had given to the Canadian Association of Retired People in Toronto. In that presentation I had spoken about the benefits of pet ownership, with specific emphasis on the psychological and physical benefits that dogs and cats provide for seniors. The person writing to me had apparently described the contents of my talk to several of his associates and this resulted in two of the board members of a local animal shelter seeking his advice about a current controversy. According to him, the board is divided on the issue of whether seniors should or should not be allowed to buy kittens, puppies, cats or dogs from them. One side says that the elderly should not be allowed to adopt pets from the shelter in view of the fact that if the human dies before them these pets will be orphaned. The other side suggests that this is age discrimination. The writer of the e-mail wanted to know what my opinion was on this matter.

I must admit that the information suggesting that an animal shelter would deny the elderly the companionship of pets was quite disturbing. The scientific evidence on the psychological value of pets is unambiguous. Elderly individuals, who otherwise would be socially isolated, are less than one quarter as likely to develop clinical levels of depression if they are living with a pet. Most of the work has been done with dogs as the pets, however the indications are that living with a cat is also helpful, although to a somewhat lesser extent. The evidence suggests that the very existence of a pet in the senior's life seems to be a means of reducing social isolation, not only due to the companionship of the pet, but because other people in the community are more likely to approach and socially interact with a person who is seen in the company of a dog.

Ben Coren and Baron

The benefits of pets for seniors are not just psychological, but also physical. Seniors who are living with a pet use medical services less frequently, follow recommended health suggestions more closely, and seem to suffer from physical ailments associated with or aggravated by stress to a lesser degree. There is even one study which looked at men aged 55 or more who had suffered from their first heart attack which found in follow-ups of 1 to 4 years, that those individuals living with a dog were much more likely to still be alive.

The argument that if the animal's owner dies sooner than their companion, the pet will be orphaned does not appear to me to have much merit. The same argument could be to suggest that single men or women in their 20s and 30s should not be allowed to have pets unless they have family living same city with them who would be willing to take over the pet should they die or become incapacitated. Furthermore, the argument that seniors are too fragile and disorganized to care for a pet seems no worse than saying that adults in mid-career, striving to advance and caring for a growing family would be too distracted and disorganized to care for a dog. The truth of the matter is that because of the bond that seniors tend to form with their pets, they will usually go out of their way to make sure that their pet is well looked after and there is someone who is willing to take care of the animal should they die before their animal companion. In addition, the definition of who is to be considered as too senior to adopt an animal is ambiguous. For example, an individual who is 65 years of age, statistically, still has about 20 years of life expectancy according to North American statistics which suggest that we now can expect to live to an age of 84, on average.

Speaking, not only as a psychologist, but as a human being, it seems to me that to deny seniors the companionship of a pet is simply an act of cruelty. To my mind it is analogous to denying seniors access to the company of friends, children, or other relatives. I have seen the effects that the arrival of a pet in the house of a senior has had. The pet brings, not only joy and comfort to the elderly individual, but the fact that the animal needs to be cared for, fed, walked, brushed and so forth, gives order and structure to the senior's life. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning, to dress, to move about, and go outside. Why should we take that opportunity away from them? I can only believe that the people who are suggesting that seniors be barred from adopting pets feel that the elderly are no longer of real use to society, and are not even worthy of having an animal companion with them in their sunset years. Such people do not appear to have much empathy. They do not seem to understand the psychological pain of sitting alone in a room with nothing but bare walls and furniture, with nothing alive to interact with, and no living thing to take comfort from, and to do this for months and years while waiting for the end to come.

If animal shelters are concerned about the fate of the dogs and cats whose elderly owners die before them, then it would be simple enough to include an item on the adoption papers citing the name of an individual who has agreed to take care of the animal in that event. I'm sure that most seniors would not find it difficult to find such a person. If the shelters are not willing to take that extra step to solve the problem, then they are truly lacking in compassion, and are ignoring the benefits and joy that a companion animal can bring to a human being-a human being whose only fault seems to be that they have lived a long life. Such institutions are not worthy of our support. It would be better to find and support a more understanding shelter, one that recognizes that a stance against cruelty to animals should also include a stance against cruelty to humans—since humans are animals as well—regardless of their age.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: 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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