Caregivers are going to the dogs. And cats. Even a few birds. Maybe a rabbit.
If ever there’s a group of people in need of those benefits, those who help the aged and infirm are it. Caregiving is one of the noblest – and loneliest – jobs. Your days are devoted to taking care of someone, but just who exactly is taking care of you? My own experience has taught me how easy it is to focus solely on the caree and neglect yourself.
Whether it’s a happy dog greeting you at the end of a long day of tending to a parent, a warm cat perched in your lap while you take a few minutes to relax, or a beautifully lit aquarium full of fish taking you away for a few minutes, pets give caregivers a much-needed boost.
Benefits of Pet Ownership for Caregivers
The benefits of having a pet aren’t just a hunch. During the last decade, many studies have focused on how pet ownership improves human cardiovascular health, reduces stress, decreases loneliness and depression, and facilitates social interactions.
As Dr. Edward Creagan of the Mayo Clinic Medical School shared with Everyday Health, “If pet ownership was a medication, it would be patented tomorrow.” Creagan cited a study of patients who survived longer after heart attacks if they had pets.
A recent University of Buffalo Study found that a pet dog or cat controls blood pressure better than an angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor used to treat hypertension. And in other research, Alzheimer’s patients still living at home with pets had fewer mood disorders and fewer episodes of aggression and anxiety than did non-pet owners – which is important to note for those caring for Alzheimer’s sufferers.
In addition to the clear physiological benefits, having a pet helps caregivers:
Stay on track. You may spend much of your time taking care of someone else’s world. But having a pet offers a way to stay connected to your world, and that can translate to a renewed sense of purpose and focus. “Having a pet keeps you on a schedule when you may have lost a sense of a regular schedule,” says Susan Kurowski, Executive Director of Pets for the Elderly, an organization that’s placed more than 64,000 animals with people 60 and over. “For example, people take better care of themselves when (a pet) is counting on them – they exercise, they eat right.”
Increase social interaction. Caregivers sometimes miss out on seeing friends regularly and attending social gatherings they might have frequented “B.C.” (Before Caregiving). Pets not only offer companionship directly to their owners, but also may lead to more social interaction with neighbors and acquaintances. If you’re tired and feel withdrawn and not talkative, sometimes a pet can bridge that gap and draw you out. In some cases, they might even get you a date. “A lonely widower walked into the shelter and bonded with a fluffy little poodle,” says Kurowski. “He grinned at staff as he walked out and said, ‘I’m going to be a real chick magnet now.’”
Come as you are. A warm, constant companion can be life-changing. Animals accept their owners “as is”– it doesn’t matter if you’re emotionally drained after dealing with caregiving challenges, sad, or angry. A pet is there for you regardless, and many people report how their pets – especially cats and dogs – have a sixth sense about when their owners are in pain. During lonely periods especially, a pet’s unconditional and nurturing love can be a lifesaver.
What Kind of Pet Suits a Caregiver Best? Caregiving can take up so much time that many wonder if they can manage a pet. It’s a fair question – one that caregivers should consider carefully before committing to a new companion. Since dogs require a lot of care, the good news is, your pet doesn’t have to be a pooch for you to reap the benefits of pet ownership. Cats, rabbits, birds, fish – all can bring similar therapeutic benefits and combat feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression, with considerably less care.
Which type of pet is right for you? Consider the pros and cons:
Pros: They wag their tails every time you’re near, you can pet and hug them, and they boost your activity levels. After a long day helping a loved one, your energy may be renewed when you walk in the door, only to be met by a wagging tale and eager eyes. If your exercise routine has evaporated in the wake of your caregiving schedule, walking a dog for even a few minutes a day can provide cardiovascular benefits as well as foster social interaction.
Cons: They require a lot of maintenance. If your caregiving work load is extensive, a dog might actually add to the stress, rather than ease it, when it gets older or sick. Caregivers may find it difficult to balance the needs of the caree with the care of an aging and infirm dog.
Pros: For a busy caregiver, cats won’t tie you down. “Dogs require more care, but they get the older people out and circulating,” says Kurowski. “Cats require less care, but have an ability to sit in a lap and provide physical contact.” Cats provide stress reduction, too – cat owners have lower risk of heart attack than non-cat owners, according to University of Minnesota research. And cats are also able to entertain themselves during times when you need stillness and space.
Cons: They likely won’t help with your exercise needs, since they require no walking. And as a species, they tend to act on their own timelines, not yours, so you may not get your needs for immediate affection met. One friend of mine described her grandmother’s cat as “friendly sometimes, but definitely not on call.” So if you’re the kind of caregiver who wants a pet to “lean in” for petting and snuggle time rather than keep its distance, a cat may not be ideal.
Pros: Every caregiver needs their down time. Whether it’s watching mindless television or staring into space or disappearing into a magazine, you need an activity that will help you decompress and regroup. Watching fish colorfully and gracefully glide around a bowl or aquarium can reduce stress. “There is something to fish in an aquarium being soothing,” says Kurowski. “So much of what’s on TV is jarring.” And other than feeding and cleaning their bowl or aquarium, they’re very low-maintenance.
Cons: Unfortunately, you can’t pet a fish or hold it close when you need comfort. And their life spans can be shorter than other pets.
Pros: If they’re small enough to manage in a cage, birds provide companionship and a bit of chatter if you want a chirpy companion to take your mind off of your challenges. Bird noises can be especially important for caregivers who spend so much time cloistered inside, since they provide a sense of being outdoors. Many birds can be trained to sit on an owner’s hand or finger, and provide the comfort of touch. In one study, older adults experienced a reduction in depression and improvement in quality of life when caring for a canary for a period of three?months.
Cons: Chances are you won’t spend a lot of time cuddled up with your bird on the sofa, like you might with a dog or cat. Not all birds talk, and they can be messy.
Whatever type of pet you choose to bring you companionship and comfort – whether four-legged, finned and fine-feathered – the pros will almost definitely outweigh the cons.