Health: The Pet As Therapist

“[One] study found that nursing home residents felt much less lonely after spending time alone with a dog than when other people joined in the visit.”

by Dave Riley

MRS. R. AND I LIVE in what can fairly be called a very large retirement community — 17,000 people. But at times it seems like there are even more dogs than humans. The Pet Food Institute (even the Alpos of the world have lobbyists) estimates there are fifty-nine million household pets in the U.S., and some days I think most of them live in my community.

That’s not a complaint. A lively dog adds some vitality in a setting where most of the people are in their seventies and beyond, and for many, life moves in a gentle slow motion. Plus our neighbors are very good about making sure that no pet leaves, to put it delicately, any evidence that he or she has been in the vicinity.

When I stop to pet a dog, I get the benefit of canine companionship without having all the responsibilities of ownership. It took me many months to get my neighbor dog Phoebe to let me even get near her but when she finally did, she became a passionate friend, with her tail wagging maniacally the instant I come into view. I could be schlepping two unwieldy sacks of groceries, but Phoebe pays no attention to that. She insists that I kneel down and scratch her neck.

Phoebe in a rare moment when her tail was not in frantic motion.

Phoebe in a rare moment when her tail was not in frantic motion.

Mrs. R’s late parents Harry and Frieda and their beautiful toy poodle Tina lived in this same community a little over thirty years ago. Tina seemed like their child, and I think it’s that way with many seniors. Before they moved to California, Harry and Frieda (and Tina, of course) lived in a lovely home in West Seattle that had a graystone bulkhead built against a grassy rise in the back yard. Tina loved to walk back and forth along this bulkhead. “She’s on patrol,” Harry would say.

HEALTHYPET.COM, A VETERINARY web site, says that studies have shown that owning and handling animals significantly benefits health, and not just for the young. “In fact,” the publication says, “pets may help elderly owners live longer, healthier, and more enjoyable lives.” I suspect that because of Tina, Harry walked many more miles each week than he otherwise would have.

It’s easy to believe that a pet can contribute to a person’s well being, but some researchers in St. Louis came upon a much more unexpected finding. Their study found that nursing home residents felt much less lonely after spending time alone with a dog than when other people joined in the visit.

“It was a pretty surprising finding,” said Dr. William Banks of Saint Louis University, who co-authored the study with his wife, Marian Banks, a postdoctoral fellow in nursing at Washington University at the time. The loneliest individuals benefited the most — although the article didn’t indicate how the researchers measured degrees of loneliness.

And pets, it appears, are good for the local economy. A number of entrepreneurial pet groomers, who correctly realized that some senior pet owners aren’t as mobile as they once were, have outfitted their vans with grooming equipment and bring their doggy salons right to the front door of the pet owners.

I SUSPECT THAT PETS TODAY eat much better than their ancestors. A few months ago, Mrs. R. was leafing through a circular — one of those 16-page or so mini-magazines with a colorful ad for a different company or product on each page — when a food ad caught her eye. It contained a photo of some appetizing medium-rare chunks of beef, moist orzo and luscious greens and tomatoes.

Anybody who knows me can readily see that I rarely if ever miss a meal, so when Mrs. R. held up the page for me to see, my eyes burned some serious rubber as they came to a screeching halt on the medley of food.

“This looks great!” I said to her. “Where can we get this?” It turns out we can get this in the pet food section of our local supermarket. Bistro, the product in the photo, is dog food.

In our neighborhood there is an afternoon gathering so regular that you could, to coin a cliché, set your watch by it. At three thirty p.m. a half-dozen or so retired ladies and their pet dogs arrive in a common grassy area for what they call “a doggy play date.” The ladies sit in lawn chairs chatting while the canines have their own social happening nearby. Occasionally there’s some yipping and yapping but for the most part it’s a quiet, orderly event.

This has gone on for so long and with such uninterrupted regularity that even the dogs, creatures we normally don’t think of as having a concept of a future tense, seem to look forward to it. “If it gets much past three p.m. and I haven’t made a move to get ready to go,” one of them told me, “she’s at the front door, urging me to get moving.”

“What was the first pet you ever had as a kid?” Mrs. R. asked me after one of my interactions with Phoebe.

“Never had one,” I said.


“Never,” I replied. “My Mom had an allergy that kicked up violently in the presence of pet hair.”

“You were deprived,” she said, and I agreed. I certainly was deprived.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.