Ageing with attitude: Having a pet has great health benefits for people over 55

Margaret Jennings explores the health benefits of having pets for the over 55s, from connecting with others and greater wellbeing to reduced blood pressure    

Ageing with attitude: Having a pet has great health benefits for people over 55

WHEN small animal vet John O’Connor was on a 24-hour monitor to check his blood pressure, he noticed his reading was at its lowest at 7pm, when he presumed John’s working day was over and he was putting his feet up.

It was a fair enough assumption, but couldn’t have been further from the truth.

“Actually, on that particular day, I had just walked into a charity clinic I work for and it was probably the busiest I had been in the entire day, because I had a lot of animals to see in a short space of time — yet my blood pressure dropped right down,” he says.

“As it turns out, I don’t have high blood pressure, thank God, but it was an eye-opener to learn that I was at my most relaxed internally, while working with the animals, so the connection for me is very strong; that being with animals is good for you.”

Though he’s a young man himself, his personal story supports the numerous studies he has encountered, as chairman of VICAS, the Veterinary Ireland Companion Animal Society, regarding pets contributing towards our wellbeing as we age.

“As a practising vet — aside from the research at all, I see the benefits,” says John.

“From a socialisation perspective, a pet gives older people something to care about; particularly if they are alone at home, the company of an animal is great.

"It gives them a reason to get up in the morning and perhaps to exercise, if they own a dog.

"And for people who retire and may not have tasks to do, or a focus on the day, I would say animals can become a key part of their life.

“Having an animal to think about, stops you worrying about other things and it takes your mind to other places.

"Just having an animal’s recognition — that unconditional love, soothes you.”

This interaction can help combat loneliness too: “I know from human research that recognition is a huge thing for humans — we crave being noticed.

"The animal’s recognition of us and we of them; the animal responding to your touch is a very instinctual primal need we have.”

As we age, health issues can present more, but several studies suggest that petting an animal can have cardiovascular benefits, including lowering blood pressure — as in John’s case — or releasing oxytocin, the so-called happy chemical, in the brain.

The results of a study which featured last January, for instance, in the online Journal of Community Nursing, found that pet therapy significantly decreased blood pressure and heart rate among older people and suggested community health nurses should consider developing and implementing pet therapy programmes in the communities they serve.

Such is the belief that pets can help us age well, a $43,000 (€38,000) grant was awarded last September to the University of Missouri for a new study to explore how companion animals effect social engagement and psychological well-being in adults aged 55+.

The grant was given by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) so the study could examine the influence of companion animal ownership on the social engagement, (social contacts and organisational participation) and psychological well- being (life satisfaction and depression) of adults.

It aims to discover if pet owners have better social engagement and wellbeing than those who do not, at the age range of 55-64 years and later, at 65+, as well as exploring the differences between the two age groups.

“We are excited to be able to look at how having a cat or dog impacts social engagement and mental health for middle-aged and older adults,” says Dr Rebecca Johnson, lead investigator and professor at the University of Missouri.

“We believe that people who have a dog or cat will be less socially isolated, have lower depression, and higher life satisfaction compared to non-pet owners.”

Meanwhile making a decision to own a pet shouldn’t be done on a whim, warns John.

“If you’re taking on an animal that has a 10 to 15 year lifespan, then you should try and make arrangements for who will care for them, if you do pass away, though charities do step in here, if a family can’t offer support.”

A cat can live on average 15-16 years and they can go up to 20.

The lifespan of a dog depends on the breed but again, 14-15 years for small dogs and six of seven years for very large breeds, says the vet.

And any other tips?

“Get the right pet for your needs. Take the time to research what kind of pet you want in your life — if it is the right breed for your environment and conditions and the time and cost implications involved.

"For example, if you get a puppy, can you do all the training, or do you go to an animal rescue centre and get a dog that’s already trained?”

There are many pets in rescue charities all over the country that need a home, he points out. And the love is sure to be reciprocated.

Spectacular idea

Fancy yourself in your favourite specs?

If you are aged 45-59, or in the over-60 category, the Specsavers Spectacle Wearer of the Year competition may be for you!

As the closing date is Sunday, you still have plenty of time to upload your spec selfie and fill out the form at

By entering you are in with a chance of representing Ireland at the star-studded grand final in London and competing for €12,000 in cash, €1,000 worth of spectacles and an all-expenses trip to New York.

Now in its 21st year, the competition aims to celebrate wearing glasses with pride and those who enter raise valuable funds for Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital Crumlin.

For each entry made, €1 is donated for the development of The Department of Ophthalmology.

Dressing down

How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing, Alison Freer, €13.38

Are you constantly fumbling through your underwear drawer, which has become a tangled mess?

Hands up, and culpable, here!

This book offers the solution, though you would think by the title, that it was all about what you wear, and not as much where you put those clothes or how to maintain them.

Written by costume designer Alison Freer, she promises to get you rethinking your wardrobe like a fashion expert and making what’s in your closet work for you.

This includes advice on making every garment fit better; mastering organising your wardrobe; cleaning those stains, and how to break boring style rules.

Ageing quote

Believe your life is worth living and that belief will help create the fact

— US philosopher William James

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7 make-up tips for older women

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