The Power of Pets


Sharon Dornberg-Lee, L.C.S.W., a CJE Clinical Supervisor, cites several health-related findings of studies related to pet ownership:

  • Pet owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduced chance of cardiovascular disease.
  • Stroking a pet reduces blood pressure.
  • Surgical patients respond better to treatment and recover faster when in contact with pets.
  • Pet owners have a greater chance to survive a serious illness than non-pet owners.
  • Pets affect a person’s survival rate more than the presence of family members or friends.
  • A direct correlation exists between pet ownership and overall health. According to the Mayo Clinic, Man_w_pets.fw.png seniors with pets have 21% fewer physician visits.
  • Dornberg-Lee also notes a few statistics from an American Animal Hospital Association survey taken in 2002:
  • 76% of several hundred respondents stated their stress levels were reduced by their companion animals.
  • 65% indicated their mental health was improved by having a pet.
  • 31% stated their physical fitness improved by providing exercise for their companion animals. Even getting up to let a dog out a few times a day or brushing a cat can benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep joints limber and flexible.

According to Dornberg-Lee, “Pets serve not only as companions, but as confidantes. They can help us to feel valued and affirmed, calm, secure and that we’re not alone.” She continues: “As a person gets older or develops health problems, a pet that is vibrant and full of energy can be a source of strength.” What are other advantages of having a pet? A pet can:

  • Help with major trauma such as illness or the loss of a loved one, a move to a new home, financial problems or family estrangements.
  • Help us get on the right track to coping with problems and divert us from making bad decisions.
  • Serve as a buffer to stress.
  • Provide vital physical contact and companionship that can occur when one becomes isolated.

Thus, we see statistical, physical and anecdotal proof that people benefit from having pets. But why do they have this effect on us? First there is the physiological reason. A study by Johnson and Meadows 1 showed that just petting a dog for a few minutes can raise levels of the hormones (serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin) that make us feel better. Dr. Alan Beck, Director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, believes that the changes in the levels of serotonin reveal the “mechanism” of how pets influence our health. “It shows that there is a physiological mechanism [i.e. relaxing with a pet], that is really comparable to other things we know cause relaxation, like eating chocolate. In other words, the warm feeling we get from our dogs and other pets isn’t just a learned behavior,” Beck says, “but something that’s hard-wired into humans so that the presence of animals can help us stay well and even recover from illnesses. 2” According to John Bradshaw 3, this genetic-determination for humans to desire the company of animals goes back tens of thousands of years, and has evolved over time to be what it is now. This also answers the question of why some people don’t like pets—it’s in their DNA.

For another reason why humans benefit from pets, Dornberg-Lee cites researcher Lindsey Alper 4, who explains the phenomenon in terms of the so-called Social Support Theory: “Pets do not judge, criticize or humiliate … they do not retaliate or feel overwhelmed or reject.” Alper cites pet and child research that found pets to be important in helping them regulate emotions. We’ve seen how pets can soothe older adults who are agitated or anxious, something really helpful for dementia patients.


Finally, there is the Biophilia Theory, which is the hypothesis, first introduced by psychologist Erich Fromm in 1973, that humans possess an innate tendency to make a connection with other living things. We have an inborn urge to be near nature and other forms of life. We love the rich diversity of shapes and colors of living things in our world. But most of all, we love our animals. In particular, we love their small features and large eyes. We tend to think they are cute, looking on them as babies (the baby schema), and instinctively protecting them. Borgi and Cirulli 5 have studied this phenomenon and found that dogs and cats exhibit infantile characteristics that adults are drawn to. Nurturing a pet can actually be as therapeutic as nurturing a child.

This inborn attraction to nature is also being looked at by Beck to see how patients with dementia can be helped by fauna of all types. For instance, some caregivers have found that people with Alzheimer’s disease often suffer from weight-loss problems because they’re unable to focus on their food long enough to eat. However, when sitting in front of aquariums with brightly colored fish, it’s been shown that elderly patients can stay focused and finish their meals.

Pets can be wonderful, but, unlike children, they never reach a stage of independence. Pet ownership is expensive. Also, the physical challenges of walking a pet, emptying litter or going to vet appointments can be overwhelming for the elderly person. Some practical tips: put the litter box on a counter to eliminate bending. Put a bell on a collar if you fear tripping on a pet. Trade a skill in return for dog walking.

Here are some things to consider if you think the benefits of pet ownership can outweigh the challenges:

1. If you have a pet, you must create a back-up plan. . .

  • To know what to do in case your pet gets sick
  • To have pet arrangements in place in case of your sickness or death. (Who would take care of your pet or support it financially?)
  • To set up a system to leave money for the care of your pet, if desired.

2. Put your plan in your will.

You can be informal, but it’s good to put it in writing, especially if you are leaving money.

3. Designate someone to care for your pet if anything happens.

Even if you have to go into the hospital for a few days, who can you trust and who is willing to care for your pet?

4. Document vital information.

  • Do you have the number for your vet where it’s easy to find (e.g., on the fridge)?
  • Does someone have a key to your place (or know where it is), know what to feed your pet and what medications, if any, it may need?

As responsible pet owners, the above points are really important to think about before a crisis occurs. Lack of planning can lead to these unfortunate outcomes:

  • A pet is left alone or perishes when someone is hospitalized or dies without a plan.
  • Healthy pets may be euthanized.
  • A person may refuse hospitalization because there is no one to care for a pet.


Finally, we’d like to leave you with some valuable pet care resources for older adults. This list is not exhaustive. There are many other organizations that also provide assistance.

Touched By An Animal
Ravenswood area no-kill cat shelter that also provides in-home pet care for hospitalized or frail older adults through a network of volunteers.

Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society
“Pets for People” provides free veterinary care for life to any pet adopted by a senior.

Felines and Canines
No-kill shelter in East Rogers Park.

PAWS Chicago
Large no-kill shelter that may take pets that older adults can no longer care for.
Northside adoption center; below south side intake.
PAWS Chicago Intake and Admissions Center
3516 W. 26th St., Chicago, IL 60623

Tree House Animal Foundation
North side no-kill cat shelter. Will often take ill or injured animals.

Emergency Services: Financial assistance for vet and pet care or pet food pantry:…

1 Johnson, Rebecca and Richard Meadows, Physiological Basis for the Human Animal Bond. Presented at the Companion Animals: Fountains of Health conference at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in 2004
2 Weaver, Jane. Puppy Love—It’s better than you think. Pet health.
3 John Bradshaw,The science why some people love animals. The
4 Alper, Lindsey Stroben, Ch. 19, The Child-Pet Bond, by, In: The Widening Scope of Self Psychology: Progress in Self Psychology, V. 9, By Arnold Goldberg, Published by Routledge, 1993.
5 Marta Borgi and Francesca