Should we encourage more pet ownership in retirement?

Blog posted

28th February 2018

Peggy and George - Retirement Villages Blog

Animals have been our companions for thousands of years, but now we’re beginning to truly understand the positive impacts pets can have on our lives, should we be looking at ways to make pet ownership in retirement easier and less costly?

As far back as recorded history shows, humans have kept animals close by. Originally these animals may have been kept because of their usefulness or out of necessity, but over many centuries they have become much more than that.

Somehow, as a species, we have always known pets are good for us, with dogs and cats in particular bringing a sense of joy and familiarity. We haven’t always been able to pinpoint the how and why of that good feeling, though, until now.

Pets on prescription?

Scientists and researchers from many fields have started to uncover why our furry friends seem to have such a positive effect on us both physically and mentally.

The health benefits of owning a pet are overwhelming. Indeed, some experts have even mooted the possibility of pets being available on the NHS.

While it seems a farfetched idea and an unnecessary cost at a time when our health system is struggling, the evidence behind the health benefits pets bring are anything but.

Studies have shown that pet owners get more regular exercise than those without a dog, for example. In fact, the University of East Anglia studied a community of adults aged between 40 and 79 in Norfolk, with the average age being 70.

Of those surveyed, 18 per cent owned dogs, and two-thirds of those walked their dogs at least once a day. Regular dog walkers were consistently more active, regardless of the weather and environmental conditions, and those who reported good health in the survey were more likely to be dog owners who walked their dogs regularly.

The author behind the study, Andy Jones, said: “It’s no surprise that dog walkers are more active, but we were surprised by how big the difference is. If we could achieve that level of activity with everybody, it would go a long way in dealing with problems of obesity and aging.”

Another study suggested dog owners over the age of 65 actually have fitness levels 10 years younger than their biological age.

The positive impact that pets have on us as we grow older go far beyond the physical, though. For example, stroking a pet actually causes the body to release oxytocin or the ‘cuddle chemical’ in both people and their pets.

That soothing effect is also why the owner-pet bond can become as strong as any human relationship – that feeling you get when you are with your pet is a bona-fide bond taking place.

And there lies the key. We all age, of course, but if we can find ways of helping the general population to keep fit both physically and mentally then we could begin to ease the strain on the NHS. And in any case, don’t we all want a high quality of life in our older age anyway? Pets are one way of helping with that.

Pet ownership among our older citizens aren’t a silver bullet by any means, but once you start to look at the wider benefits, the financial and social benefits begin to stack up.

Pet expense

So should it be a cause for concern that pet ownership in the UK has declined to 56% in 2017 – down from 63% in 2012?

Perhaps more worrying is the decreasing ownership levels among over-65s, which has fallen to a low of 36%.

At Retirement Villages, we recognise the importance of pets to many of our current and future residents, which is why all our villages are pet friendly.

However, the cost of pet ownership can be huge and off-putting for many budding owners. Research by the PDSA found 12% of dog owners thought the lifetime cost would be £500 when the actual cost is closer to £30,000 depending on size and breed. You can find some useful information on the costs of owning a dog on the PDSA website.

But it’s this cost that might mean over 65s decide not to take on new pets ahead of or in retirement, even if they have previously been pet owners.

So how can we encourage over 65s to make the most of pet ownership while removing some of the barriers that prevent it in the first place?

Shared ownership

Perhaps it’s time we re-think what pet ownership actually is. Experts have called for dog ‘lending’ schemes to be offered, so older generations can take advantage of the mental benefits dogs offer as well as encouraging more exercise.

BorrowMyDoggy has been operating for a few years now. It does what it says on the tin, allowing dog owners and those without a pet to ‘match’ up and agree to share the a canine friend as and when it suits both parties.

While the concept sounds odd, the principle is a good one.

Other schemes could include dog-walking groups, so more over 65s can take advantage of pets in the area, or even more involvement from local animal shelters. In this scenario, over 65s in the area will benefit from regular access to pets, while the shelter dogs will get regular interactions with familiar faces.

Pets as Therapy already makes visits to hospitals and care homes across the UK, allowing many people to engage with pets when they otherwise wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to extend this service to retirement villages and communities across the country.

These schemes may fly in the face of the traditional pet ownership model, but with so many benefits on offer to our older population and so many animals in need of loving homes, ‘shared ownership’ is one way we can spread out the cost and positive impact of pets among a community.

Ultimately, some lateral thinking is needed when it comes to pet ownership to reduce the barriers to pet ownership as well as ensuring animals across the country are looked after by a caring community.