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The perks of pet ownership for retirees

Friday - 9/5/2014, 8:21am  ET

pet, elderly, retiree and dog (thinkstock)
There are some pitfalls and some benefits to owning pets in old age. (Thinkstock)
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WASHINGTON -- Owning a pet can offer companionship, but researchers are saying pets offer more perks, including better physical and emotional health for aging generations.

About 68 percent of U.S. households have a pet, according to a recent survey from the American Pet Products Association. The pets can be an essential part of the family -- especially for aging pet owners, says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Beck spoke with USA TODAY and highlighted some of the ways that pets can improve the life of quality of life for people entering retirement age.

  • Provide companionship. The title of "man's best friend" doesn't extend only to dogs. All pets can make people feel less lonely.

    "People feel a lot of stress when they are alone," Beck says. "Animals can be the focus of attention and keep you in the present."

  • Become something to touch. Many people get comfort from touch. If you're alone, it can be comforting to have a pet on your lap or near you.

  • Help lower blood pressure. Research shows that petting an animal can help lower blood pressure.

    "We're not proposing this as a management of hypertension, but the research shows there is a true physiological response to animals," Beck told USA TODAY.

  • Encourage exercise. Many pets, such as dogs, require walks. The practice not only helps improve the pet's life, but also the owner's with exercise and weight-management.

  • Establish a schedule. Animals can help people orient the day, according to gerontologists.

    "You might forget to feed yourself, but you are not going to forget to feed the dog or cat who is nudging you when it's meal time," Beck said to USA TODAY.

  • Provide humor. Pets can bring joy and laughter to life, which can improve mood and morale.

    "We can find a certain amount of humor in them without hurting anyone's feelings. They are our court jesters. That's why animal videos are so popular on the Web," Beck says.

  • Break the ice. Studies show that people are more likely to engage in conversation with others if they are out walking the dog. It's simple, Beck says: Pets give people something to talk about.

    For example, animals are brought to nursing homes so volunteers can interact with patients while talking about the four-legged friends, Beck says.

There are some downsides to owning pets later in life, Beck adds.

There is the fear and pain of losing the companion. Also, there's a cost that can come with ownership, It' a cost that can increase as pets, similar to their owners, get older.

Many pet owners are fearful they we be outlived by their pets, leaving the animals abandoned.

Having a pet during retirement is a very personal decision, which people should not take lightly, Beck says.

However, it can be rewarding as many older people are just as proud to show off photos of their grandkids as they are their "granddogs," he says.

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