Elderly man petting dog in wheelchair

Human Animal Interaction

Researchers call for more studies looking at role of pets in healthy aging

A new research review looks at role of pets in healthy ageing and argues the need for better evidence of positive impacts

Across the developed world, populations are ageing. On one level this is great news: we are all living longer. But the downside is a growing raft of health and social problems that can make the later years a less than happy experience. These include a rise in chronic health problems, including dementia, and the loneliness and isolation that many older people experience. So it is unsurprising that there is increasing interest in the role that pets could play in promoting a more healthy approach to ageing.

It’s not hard to see why older people could potentially benefit from interaction with animals. They provide companionship. Dog walks can be an encouragement to exercise. Pet ownership has also been associated with lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and faster recovery during mental stress. But what is the evidence that any of these effects are making a real difference to senior’s lives?

Now a recently published overview of research in the field seeks to summarize and evaluate existing studies in this innovative area of scholarship. The authors identify the potential benefits and risks of both pet ownership and animals in therapeutic settings for older adults.

“Both pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy are becoming increasingly popular,” says lead author Nancy Gee, a researcher in Human Animal Interaction (HAI) at WALTHAM. “We wanted to explore how these relationships with animals can impact human health and well-being and identify recommendations for future research and application.”

Of course, not all older people want or can accommodate pets at home. In the USA, for instance, only about half of adults over the age of 50 years have a pet. But there is increasing interest in the therapeutic benefit of providing interaction with animals in other non-domestic settings; an approach termed Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI). This generally involves introducing animals, under controlled conditions, to institutions such as hospitals, care homes or hospices. Evidence that such interventions may be beneficial is growing, say the authors, but far more research is needed to tease out just what the causal connections and long-term impacts are.

“We need to better understand the circumstances under which animals are beneficial to older adults, says Gee. “In other words, when, how, where and for whom are animals beneficial so that we can determine the best match between people and pets.”

The authors also point out that there are risks associated with animals and older adults. A pet may be a trigger for falls, for instance. And care for pets if their owners become too infirm to look after them can put an extra burden on animal welfare organisations and local authorities.

The authors highlight the considerable methodological challenges of assessing the impact of animals on healthy human aging. For example, it is nearly impossible to conduct double-blind studies involving animals since participants are always aware that the animal is present.

“Although it is clear that the impact of animals on healthy human aging is complicated and fraught with challenges, we believe this exciting research area is ripe for growth,” says Gee. “While initial findings in many areas of health and well-being are promising, there are numerous opportunities for improving the breadth, depth, and quality of the research on HAI and human aging. As such, the field is at an exciting and critical turning point, with the potential for significant growth in our understanding of how animals can impact older adults in ways that may support meaningful changes to policy and practice in the future.”