Written by Debbie Swanson for Next Avenue
Maybe your father needs to keep up with his exercise, but without anyone at home to nudge him outdoors, he tends to put it off. Maybe your mother needs something to focus her attention on instead of her health worries. The right animal companion is the perfect way to keep older adults active as they age in place, and to help them feel less alone, needed and loved.
"An animal provides another focus, a reason to get up in the morning, an opportunity to exercise, unconditional love and a social lubricant," says Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri. For adults living alone, "animals can reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation," she says. Research has also found that pet owners take better care of themselves, rebound faster from illness, maintain lower blood pressure, and have a lower risk of heart disease, Johnson says, adding that she has seen these benefits firsthand at TigerPlace, an independent living community co-developed by the university that encourages pet ownership. She credits animal companionship there with transforming withdrawn, sedentary adults into active, social members of the community.
Before getting a pet for a relative or friend who is aging in place, be sure the person truly wants a pet and is able to handle the day-to-day responsibilities, as well as expenses, like food and veterinary care. It's also important to give some thought to what you'll do if the person needs to move into an assisted-living facility, becomes unable to care for the pet or dies before the pet. For example, will you take the pet into your own home?
The next step is choosing an animal whose personality is compatible with its new owner's. Like people, animal personalities can run the gamut from clown to jock to couch potato. Also factor in how much space the animal needs, how much time it's able to spend alone, and how much exercise it requires.
If you're purchasing a pet for the first time, make sure you're prepared to be a responsible co-owner, along with its destined companion. This guide from the American Kennel Club can get you started as a dog owner, and these resources from the American Humane Association will help get you set to care for a cat.
The following dog and cat breeds can be a good fit for people aging in place — be sure to check them out in our slide show. But they're far from the only good choices. Many mixed-breed animals make wonderful pets, and can be considerably less expensive than purebreeds. There may also be a great selection of both purebreeds and mixed-breeds awaiting a home at your local animal shelter or rescue center.
Best Dogs for Older Adults
Boston Terrier: This lively, compact dog will nudge its owner to get out the door for a daily dose of exercise or socialization, but once he's had his fix, he'll nestle into a comfortable spot by his owner's side. "Boston terriers are bred to be companion dogs," says Dane LaJoye, president of the Boston Terrier Club of America. "They like nothing more than to be with their owner, on the sofa watching TV, or curled up next to their owner in bed. The breed is happy-go-lucky and playful, yet attentive to their owners' needs."
Pug: Bred in China to serve as companions to royalty, today's pugs maintain their devotion to their masters. This faithful dog will thrive with attention, and is sure to keep its owner entertained with his silly personality. A pug is so content to share your company that it may need your encouragement to get up for daily exercise. Pugs can't handle too much activity, but brief, daily play or short walks will help them avoid weight gain. The pug's flat nose means it doesn't tolerate heat well, so an air conditioner is a must in warmer climates, and walks should be limited to cooler times of day.
Greyhound: For a larger breed, the sensitive, mellow greyhound makes an unexpectedly gentle roommate, and even retired racers don't have the demanding fitness needs one might expect. "He'd like to run off leash a few times a week, so you'd need a fenced yard, or a nearby baseball field or dog park. But outside of that, leashed walks will do," says Louise Coleman, executive director of Greyhound Friends Inc. in Hopkinton, Mass. Greyhounds enjoy quiet company, a peaceful environment, and a warm, soft place to nap. "When they were racing, they lived in kennels or crates much of the time, sleeping," Coleman says.
Cocker Spaniel: For those who like a dog strolling by their side, the cocker spaniel could be a great choice. "You don't have to worry about his exercise," says Calvin Ward, president of the American Spaniel Club. "He's happy to take an outing and just accompany you around, doing things together." With even temperaments, they'll easily tolerate the bustle of visiting relatives as well. An average cocker spaniel weighs about 20 pounds, Ward says, "not so tiny that they're fragile, and not too big that they're overwhelming."
Chihuahua: These personality-packed dogs with human-like eyes form tight bonds with their owners. They may act aloof or protective with strangers, so visitors shouldn't be offended by an initially chilly welcome. The Chihuahua's size makes it well-suited for apartment living, though some dogs make up for their small stature with excessive barking. Daily walks or outings will keep a Chihuahua fit and social, but when it's cool, this pet would rather get its own exercise indoors playing with a toy or running laps around the living room.
Best Cats for Older Adults
Russian Blue: With a playful nature and an upturned "smiling" mouth, a Russian Blue will lift the spirits of everyone in its household. "Cat toys are a must with this breed," says breeder Mikki Olson of Big Creek Cattery in Garden City, Mo. Once this cat has exercised its playful side, though, it appreciates a laid-back household with a dependable routine. "They tend to be dog-like in nature, meaning they love to be in their owner's presence," Olson says. "They'll follow you from room to room, run to greet you at the door, and be waiting for you on the bed when it's time go to sleep at night." The Russian Blue's dense, silver-blue coat sheds little.
Ragdoll: With a polite, subdued voice, the ragdoll will try to initiate play, without being overly demanding. If its owner isn't up for games, though, the agreeable ragdoll will be just as happy getting love and attention in a snuggle. "They are interactive, gentle and quiet," says breeder Barb Jones of Catlana Ragdolls in Boise, Idaho. Ragdolls have long hair, but they don't matt. While they do shed, a weekly brushing will take care of most loose hair. Some ragdolls can weigh up to 15 pounds, which may be a consideration for owners who'll have to load the cat into a carrier.
Persians and Himalayans: For owners who favor companionship over activity, these fluffy lap cats may be a great choice. Both breeds are mild-mannered and not terribly active, says Kirsten Kranz, director of the Specialty Purebred Cat Rescue of Wisconsin. Their striking, plush coats do require some regular grooming to avoid tangles and mats. But they are so fond of attention, they should accept the brushing as part of their daily routine. If brushing becomes difficult for an owner, a groomer can simplify the job by giving the cat a shorter cut. Both breeds are quiet, but the Himalayan is the more vocal of the pair.
Manx: The Manx is the rare cat that may embrace a daily walk. "They will walk on a leash," says Claire Broughton, a Vermont Manx breeder. This typically tailless breed may generate some attention on its daily outing, but it won't mind – a Manx is good-natured and social. A small- to medium-sized cat with a solid anatomy, the Manx is a master jumper, and no surface is out of reach. But this intelligent feline is also trainable, and can learn what's off limits, Broughton says.