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Q. and A.: Pet Ownership Can Benefit Older Adults

Thu, 05/16/2024 - 12:49
A couple from New York City recently adopted a cat named Spice from ARF.
Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 68 percent of American households have some type of pet, whether hairy or scaly, furry or feathered. "Nothing compares to the joy of coming home to a loyal companion," the organization wrote in a February 2018 newsletter. "The unconditional love of a pet can do more than keep you company. Pets may also decrease stress, improve heart health, and even help children with their emotional and social skills."

 But what about senior adults and pets in particular? Studies have shown that "human-animal interaction," as one team of researchers wrote in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2017, "may provide social support for older adults, thus reducing the risk of loneliness."

 This could be your adult children recommending you adopt a dog or cat; it could be a retiree volunteering time at a local animal shelter; or it could be meeting new human friends at places like a dog park or cat cafe where the focus is on a mutual appreciation for furry friends.

 Kim Nichols, executive director of the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, weighed in on this topic in a question-and-answer session with The Star.

The Star: For simplicity's sake, let's talk just about dogs and cats. What are the benefits an older adult can experience from adopting a dog or cat?

K.N.: The more I think about it, I think it is essential. Having a pet in your life changes the dynamic in your home and forces you to be more active. I think we're still coming off Covid and social isolation, and a pet fills that void in a way that is so special. The bond that you have with that animal is incredible. I know from my own experience with my grandmother, she stuck around for the cats. She loved all of us, her children and her grandchildren, very much, but she felt responsible for her cats. And her chickens. . . . Once you make that bond with them, it's absolutely incredible.

The Star: What kinds of qualities should an older adult look for when adopting a pet?

K.N.: When mobility becomes an issue, any cat or dog can be a tripping hazard, so you may not want a pet that's as active. That's one of the wonderful things about shelters -- we have so many adult dogs who are at so many stages of their lives, and we can match your activity level to their activity level. That said, there's no such thing as a completely passive dog. All dogs need exercise. The same goes for cats -- some are more playful and some are more reserved. I think cats or dogs are the best pets, but it's about personal preference, so if you want to bring an animal like a fish into your life, and you will love and take care of them, then that's what you should do.

The Star: What about senior pets and senior humans? It seems like that's an ideal match.

K.N.: I think that a senior person and a senior pet is a beautiful match, but senior pets come with more needs. There may be a need for more attention, or more medical issues, in which case there is a lot more financial responsibility in taking care of that pet. But the activity level may not be as high as a puppy. The beautiful thing about adult dogs, too, is they are usually potty trained. One of the things that is very important to us is that everyone knows they can bring the dog back to us if it doesn't work. if something changes in their life, if their living arrangements change, we will always, without question, take an animal back. That is very important. There is absolutely no shame in it, and it's important you bring the pet to a place that is safe, like ARF. We can get the animal adopted out again. But we are seeing a number of animals where someone has died and the family isn't able to take care of them, so we'll take them in and find them loving homes. A lot of them tend to be senior dogs or cats themselves.

The Star: What are the later-in-life considerations a pet owner should plan for?

K.N.: A lot of us fill out advance directives. It's almost easy to talk about -- what you want at your funeral, the type of music and flowers you may want -- but it's also important to think about what happens to your pets. Who's someone you feel comfortable taking care of the pet, and are they able and comfortable in taking the pet? If not, you should talk to a place like ARF. It happens quite frequently. A lot of people will put it into their will and then many people will notify us of a gift and say will you please take responsibility? That tends to be how we find out.

The Star: What are some considerations for cats versus dogs?

K.N.: If you can swing it, dog walkers are wonderful. A lot of people have fenced-in yards, but it's not enough to just let your dog out. You need to be out there playing with your dog. Cats are much easier. Cats will let you know if they want to play or if they want to sleep.

The Star: Are there cases where you would recommend someone does not adopt a pet?

K.N.: Yes — if someone is not capable of providing care for the animal. But if that's the case, I would encourage people to come and socialize with our animals here. Our catteries are open every day. We have puppies you can come and sit with. It helps the animals as well. Food and medical care are expensive. But you can still come here and enjoy the animals and help them.

The Star: Why should someone who wants to adopt a pet come to a shelter like ARF, as opposed to adopting from a private breeder or individual?

K.N.: One of the advantages of adopting from ARF is all of our animals have a complete medical check and a complete behavioral assessment. We know our dogs well and I think that the adoptions director and coordinator have a gift for matching people with the correct animal. You may think you know the dog you want, you may have seen a picture, but that dog may not meet your lifestyle needs. It's the same with cats. Our adoptions coordinator has a gift for cats and knows them exceptionally well, and they have as much personality if not more than dogs. There is someone out there for every one of our animals. And those are the ones we celebrate the most because those are huge wins. When you find that match, it's a beautiful thing.

The Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, at 124 Daniel's Hole Road in Wainscott, is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for visits, volunteering, and pet adoptions. The website is and the phone number is 631-537-0400.

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