Pets Benefit Aging Adults’ Health, MU Researcher Says

Aging adults benefit from relationships with pets, research has shown. Having a pet can lower the stress hormone, cortisol, while increasing oxytocin, prolactin and norepinephrine, hormones related to joy, nurturing and relaxation. Although the health benefits of pet ownership widely are acknowledged, many retirement communities and eldercare facilities do not allow or accommodate residents’ pet ownership. Rebecca Johnson, an associate professor in the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing and in the College of Veterinary Medicine, says long-term care facilities should follow the lead of others in their industry, such as TigerPlace, an independent living community in Mid-Missouri, that enable residents to have pets.

Johnson, director of MU’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) says interacting with pets can improve older adults’ quality of life.

“Research suggests older adults live longer, healthier, happier lives when they interact with pets on a regular basis,” Johnson says. “Pets provide companionship and unconditional love that improves the overall health of aging individuals. Caring for animals gives older adults responsibility and more reasons to get up in the mornings.”

Johnson says eldercare facilities should do more to help older adults keep their pets when they move into retirement homes and other independent-living communities. The TigerPlace Pet Initiative (TiPPI) offers a successful model other eldercare facilities can emulate, she says.

“Health care providers are quick to give walkers and canes to aging individuals to help with their physical needs, but they make it difficult for elderly individuals to keep their pets, key facilitators of emotional health,” Johnson says. “TigerPlace recognizes the benefits of pet ownership and makes it easier for residents to own pets by having pet-friendly facilities and in-house services available to help residents care for pets.”

TigerPlace’s philosophy is to help individuals age in place, a concept that centers on helping residents maintain their independence in homelike settings while having supportive health services available to them as needed. Residents live in one-level apartments with screened-in porches that lead to an outdoor walking path, which facilitates pet ownership. Students from MU’s veterinary medicine and nursing programs visit TigerPlace three times a week to walk pets and clean litter boxes. Monthly, a retired veterinary medicine faculty member makes preventative care visits to pets. This service enables early detection of problems that pets’ own veterinarians can treat. An on-site exam room provides a specialized facility for veterinary care.