Dogs are man’s best friend, and that’s especially true for retirees, who can enjoy an array of health and lifestyle benefits sharing their home with a canine companion.
“Dogs just make your golden years brighter,” says Jackie Walker, 71, a former retail clothing buyer who now lives in Tampa, Florida.
Walker started her retirement dogless so she could travel more easily, but that changed several years ago when Walker, who then lived in Chicago and had grown up with dogs, decided she could no longer live without a pup pal. She and her husband, Richard, added two furry family members: Cinderella, a Lhasa Apso, and Maddie, a Bichon Frise.
The dogs encouraged them to walk around their neighborhood four times a day, follow a healthy daily routine, and meet and chat up neighbors. One of Walker’s favorite things about having dogs is being greeted at the door by their wagging tails. “The unconditional love that dogs give you, and the excitement when you come home, you can’t bottle that,” she says.
Walker’s experiences, and those of other retirees with dogs, are backed up by a number of scientific studies that demonstrate that people with dogs may be happier, healthier, and less stressed. Here are six reasons dogs make the best pets for retirees.
1. Dogs Encourage Exercise
Dogs have a special way of getting their humans off the couch and out moving. In fact, a dog owner walking their dog can log about 23,700 miles over the dog’s 12-year lifespan. “Of all pets, dogs appear most likely to positively influence the level of human physical activity,” the American Heart Association asserted in a scientific statement on pet ownership and cardiovascular risk.
In support of this, a study on dogs and exercise led by Michigan State University, published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, found that people with dogs are 34 percent more likely than those without dogs to meet federal benchmarks for leisure time physical activity. And older people tend to spend more time walking their dogs than middle-aged people, so the former get even more of an exercise boost from owning a dog.
2. Dogs Can Help Heart Health
In addition to encouraging exercise, a dog may help improve your cardiovascular health. For example, in one study on dog ownership and blood pressure, 30 people with borderline hypertension were told to either adopt a dog from a local shelter immediately or remain dogless.
Months later, participants who adopted a furry friend experienced a reduction in blood pressure, unlike the others. But once those in the other group adopted dogs, their blood pressures decreased as well. Dogs aren’t a cure all for cardiovascular health issues, of course, but living with a canine companion may do your heart some good.
3. Dogs Provide Companionship
A dog is the perfect pet to provide company. After all, humans and dogs have been together for over 18,000 years. Dogs love to be close to their humans—scientists call it “proximity seeking”—which is why they tend to want to snuggle on your lap, cuddle next to you on the couch, or lie at your feet. Dogs also have an uncanny knack for picking up on and responding to signals from humans and can be trained to perform tasks, like fetching your slippers or picking up dropped items.
A bonus: training and playing with your dog can give you a mental workout, explains Darius Russin, MD, a family practice doctor and geriatrician in Austin, Texas. “You can keep your mind sharp by playing with puzzles with your dog.”
4. Dogs Foster a Sense of Community
Dogs not only provide plenty of companionship and love on their own, they also help bring people together. If you’ve ever walked a friendly dog through a bustling neighborhood, you know they make great ice breakers. Research backs up this obvious truth. In fact, one study found that walking a dog was the third most common way people met their neighbors in a new neighborhood, and that dog owners were 60 percent more likely than non-dog owners to meet new people in their neighborhood.
Dogs also bolster support networks, which helps guard against loneliness, says Steve Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that gathers and funds research on the benefits of companion animals. “Dogs really do encourage and facilitate social interaction, and people you interact with socially become your support system” he adds. An analysis of 148 studies on social support found that people with strong support systems are 50 percent more likely than people with less social support to live longer.
It’s easy to see how dogs bring people together, Feldman says. Dog owners who go out walking with their pooches “learn the names of the dogs and maybe even the names of the humans” in the neighborhood, he explains. “Or the neighbor kids want to come see the dog and you meet the family next door.”
5. Dogs Add Routine to Retirement
When you retired, you probably savored your newfound freedom. But, at the same time, you might have found it difficult to adjust to the lack of structure that having a job provided. Fortunately, dogs are very routine-oriented, and they can help to get you on a schedule.
For example, Walker’s dogs wake her up every morning at 7 a.m. She takes them for a walk, then makes coffee and watches the news. They remind her when it’s time for their afternoon snack and they even start barking when it’s time to go to bed. She and her husband welcome the sense of order their dogs provide. “It’s like they have a clock in their brain.”
6. Dogs Make Good Travel Companions
Many retirees take advantage of their release from the 9 to 5 grind by traveling more, and some become snowbirds, traveling south every winter. Because dogs are generally amenable to life on the go, you can take them with you on your travels. Small dogs can even accompany you on flights in the cabin so long as they’re in their carrier, which Cinderella and Maddie often do with Walker.
And travel with dogs is now easier than ever due to a proliferation of pet-friendly lodgings and services, Feldman points out. For example, the Walkers stay in dog-friendly hotels at their vacation destinations. And once they arrive, they find that their dogs inevitably get them talking and joking with hotel staff and fellow travelers.
“Dogs make great pets for seniors,” Feldman says.
Would you prefer a feline friend? Check out Why Cats Make the Best Pets for Retirees