Having a pet in your home is a proven mood booster. A pet can prevent loneliness and the threat of depression. In several recent studies, pet ownership was shown to be a factor in lowering blood pressure and preventing heart disease, in addition to the benefits from the exercise you experience while walking or playing with your pet.
For seniors who have limited energy or physical abilities, it's important to choose a low-effort pet whose needs can be met without difficulty.
"Some of the best pets are cats or older dogs," says Michele Hollow of the blog "Pet News and Views," which covers pet care, animal welfare and people who work with and on behalf of animals. "If an older adult is looking to adopt, it's a good idea to adopt an older pet. Dogs are great, but I would stay away from a puppy. Puppies need a lot of attention. Older dogs come already trained. You will have to walk a dog, of course, but it's good exercise. I would look for a dog that is 5 or older. At that age, they lost their puppy energy, which can tire a lot of folks out. Older dogs are wiser and calmer. They will more than likely slot into your environment and bond with you on a mature level, unlike young puppies, which can cause mischief and become slightly out of control if restless. An older dog knows how to sit still, whereas a puppy simply chooses to do what it wants."
At your local animal shelter, you'll find a wide array of older dogs whose owners gave them up because of financial hardship. This means an amiable, trained adult dog is sitting in a kennel right now awaiting a new home. Talk to the shelter's staff. It will assess your pet preferences to match you with a lovable older dog or cat that will add joy to your home without much effort.
Expert dog trainer Leah Hatley of The Family Dog suggests looking online or talking to animal shelter experts about the specific activity needs of different breeds of dogs. "Some dogs need to be exercised a lot," she says. "Border collies and other breeds might need to be walked several times a day, while other types of dogs require less activity."
If you have the means, you can get help. "Seniors can also hire people to walk their dogs or feed their cats and change the litter box," Hollow says.
"Other low-effort types of pets include mice, gerbils, guinea pigs and hamsters," Hollow says, but some seniors feel that the effort of lifting, cleaning and disinfecting a cage is a bit beyond their abilities. With a helpful volunteer, such as a neighbor's child who can visit once a week to maintain your pet's home, you get the benefits of the pet and of the volunteer's regular visits.
A growing trend in senior pet ownership is fish. "Scientific studies show that fish lower our blood pressure. That is why you often see tanks in dentists' offices," Hollow says.
At the pet store, you'll find low-maintenance fish tanks, such as 12-by-5-inch betta tanks that are made of sturdy plastic, easy to lift and simple to clean. A single colorful betta goes in this quiet tank to add an exotic element to your home. You choose the gravel and live plant elements to go in the tank, and feeding is quite simple. There's no grooming, and the fish exercises itself. The financial investment may be half the cost of adopting a dog or cat, as well. Larger fish tanks also have improved cleaning technologies, making it easier to maintain a sizable tank with a variety of colorful tropical fish. Some of these tanks only require you to scoop out one-third of the water and pour in fresh water once a week, with a more thorough cleaning happening once a month or so.
"My colorful fish bring me such happiness," says retiree Lina Ford. "Every morning and night, they look so happy when I feed them, and they remind me of the travels to tropical islands that my departed husband and I took during our earlier years."
Hollow warns, though, that "no animal is entirely low-effort. All require attention. All pets, like us, need human interaction. Feeding is essential, and so are daily brushing, petting and communication. When I wake up in the morning, I greet my cat, talk to him and play with him." That takes effort, she says, but it makes them both feel great.