According to a new report by Kingston University and St George's, University of London, health benefits for seniors include falling asleep faster, feeling safer and exercising more than those without pets.
Health and wellbeing expert Gill Mein and statistician Robert Grant analysed the link between retirement and health as part of a study that originated in 1985, featuring more than 10,000 civiil servants.
"We suspected that owning a pet may have some health benefits, so we decided to investigate this as part of our research," says Mein from Kingston and St George's Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education.
"We found that as study participants were getting older, many of the questions in the biennial questionnaire were becoming increasingly negative – about illness, loneliness, depression. From my interviews, I had noticed many people were very involved with their pets as they came into retirement and felt very positive about them, so we decided to include some questions about pet ownership to give people something positive to talk about and to investigate any links with health variables."
In their research, scientists found that two in seven or roughly 27 per cent owned a pet. Among the pets, 18 per cent owned cats, 11 per cent dogs, four per cent fish. Birds, rabbits, tortoises, horses, guinea pigs, chickens and hamsters also featured among the 1929 pet owners.
The results proved interesting.
Pet-owners exercised more, fell asleep quicker and were far more positive about their neighbourhood. However, those with dogs saw greater benefits in these areas.
"The fact that older people with pets fell asleep more easily than those without could be linked to the increased mild and moderate exercise we saw in this group, and particularly among dog owners," continues Mein.
"The other element I found fascinating was that people with pets felt happier about their local environment. If you walk around your neighbourhood, you feel more comfortable about it – it isn't necessarily as hostile as it could be if you mainly travel in a car or use public transport as you know it a bit better, it's more familiar."
"The study was exploratory in nature, so we went looking for connections between the people's attributes, their pets and their health," says Robert Grant.
"While those who took part in the Whitehall II study are not entirely representative of the population of retired people in Britain, the findings are still significant and reveal some interesting benefits to pet ownership for certain older people. The sleep and neighbourhood perceptions are the really new aspects that haven't been looked at before."
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