Studies have shown that pets can benefit the lives and health of senior citizens, both emotionally and physically.

Almost everyone can relate to the joy and relaxation that comes from petting a cat or playing with a dog.

Owning and handling pets has been shown to provide significant health benefits, not just for the healthy and young, but also for senior citizens, assisting them in living longer, healthier and more enjoyable lives, according to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published a study in May 1999, demonstrating that independently living seniors who have pets tend to have better physical health and mental well-being than those who don’t.

They are more active, cope better with stress, and have better overall health, with elderly pet owners having significantly lower blood pressure overall than their contemporaries without pets.

The AAHA cites an experimental residential home for the elderly called the Eden Alternative, which is filled with over 100 birds, dogs, and cats and has an outside environment with rabbits and chickens. The facility has experienced a 15 percent lower mortality rate than traditional nursing homes over the past five years.

There are many explanations as to how pets can facilitate these health benefits. The physical benefits include walking a dog, feeding, grooming, fresh water, replacing kitty litter, and playing with and petting the animal, all of which require action from the owner.

Everyday activities by the pet owner benefit the cardiovascular system and keep joints limber and flexible, lowering blood pressure, heart rate and a temperature decrease, states the AAHA.

There are also intangible benefits of pet ownership. The companionship of a pet, the unconditional love, can serve as a support system for older people who may not have family or close friends nearby.

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society study showed that people with pets were better able to remain emotionally stable during a crisis than those without pets.

Pets are a buffer against loneliness and isolation, helping to combat depression, one of the most common medical problems facing seniors today.

The responsibility of caring for an animal may also give the elderly a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. Pets help seniors stick to regular routines of getting up in the morning, buying groceries, and going outside, which helps motivate them to eat and sleep regularly and well.

When selecting a pet, seniors need to be aware of finding a pet that is not too large or energetic and suits their energy level.

An older pet from the animal shelter is ideal, because the senior will be helping to provide a home to a pet that might otherwise be euthanized.

Rescue groups also have older pets needing homes, and can help match the appropriate sized pet to the potential owner, as well as a pet that is well suited to a particular individual’s time and energy.