By Joy Stephenson - Law
Many baby boomers, like myself, own dogs. My husband Eric and I are the proud ‘parents’ of five German Shepherds. They have become a part of our family now that our kids are grown and left home.
They are our official mental and physical fitness trainers because they keep us active, healthy, happy and stress-free. They also happen to be very large ‘professionals’ with an average weight of 90 pounds each !
Boomers like us are reportedly the first generation of Americans for whom pet ownership is common. We represent about 37% of all pet owners, and, while people historically tend to own fewer pets as they age, boomers show no signs of slowing pet ownership.
Surprisingly, though, very few people truly understand how beneficial these furry family members are to our overall health and wellbeing. Many scientific studies support the positive health benefits of pet ownership. Owning a pet, especially a dog, has been associated with all of the following:
Reduced Risk of Heart ProblemsA nationwide population based study of more than 3.4 million people over 12 years suggests that owning a dog is linked to a longer life.
The results of the study were published in Scientific Reports on November 17, 2017. Reportedly, dog owners have a lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease than people who do not report owning a dog. They also have a lower risk of death from other causes.
Longevity was more evident for those people who lived alone with a dog as compared to those who lived alone without a dog. This may be due to the fact that pet owners are more likely to exercise. Even just one hour of physical exercise can counteract the effects of sitting for six to seven hours a day.
Lower Blood PressureThe American Heart Association released a scientific statement affirming “an association between pet ownership and lower blood pressure.” This could be due to increased exercise levels or bonding and companionship with one’s pet.
Lower StressThe companionship people receive from their beloved pets better equips them to deal with stress. Petting and playing with your dog helps your body reduce the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. It also promotes relaxation.
Improved Social BehaviorA study was conducted in Germany with dementia patients in a nursing home. The patients were provided therapy sessions that included dog visits.
Those that worked with the dogs had significantly longer periods of verbal communication, physical contact and longer attentiveness than patients who did not have any interaction with the dogs.
Similar associations have been found with dogs and children with autism as well. Walking your dog is also a great way to get out of the house and meet other people, so the social benefits are numerous.
Overall WellbeingPeople with pets are generally found to be happier, more trusting and less lonely than those without. Pets also give structure to our days and help keep us in the moment, both of which are important once we retire.
Best Breeds for BoomersGerman Shepherds like ours may not be the best breed for some boomers though. They shed a lot, are high on energy and require lots of physical activity.
However, they are great swimmers and one exercise that all baby boomers should engage in is swimming. Water workouts are great for our bodies, and these dogs can be great pool companions.
Before you start looking, however, there are some things that we, as boomers, need to keep in mind:
Energy LevelsThink about your energy levels and try to match them with your dog. Just because a dog may be small, doesn’t mean it won’t require a lot of exercise, play and entertaining. Sometimes the smaller dogs are the liveliest!
Pet’s Health HistoryCheck out your prospective pet child’s health history. Some boomers may have fixed incomes and should get an idea of what kinds of healthcare costs your new family member may require.
Puppy or Adult? Seriously consider getting an adult dog rather than a puppy. While puppies are admittedly cute and fun, having one around is like having a newborn at home. I know you love your grandkids, but would you really want them around 24/7 while they are still in diapers?
While there are others, Dog Digest recommends the following as probably the best breeds for boomers:
Pugs are affectionate and require very little grooming. They don’t need a lot of exercise or space.
Schnauzer comes in different sizes to fit your living situation. These dogs are great with children.
Cocker Spaniels are of medium-size. They are outgoing and love to play, but they need a lot of grooming.
The Chihuahua is perfect for small living spaces. This dog is very affectionate and loyal, but keep in mind that it needs exercise.
Boston Terriers are of manageable size. They are friendly and love people, and are very easy to groom.
A Shih Tzu dogs are noisier but also playful, friendly and alert. They are great for apartments, but do need grooming.
Beagles are friendly, loyal and playful. Need more exercise than other breeds or they may “act out.”
Poodles come in different sizes. They are easy to train, hypo allergenic and adaptable.
A Yorkshire Terrier is a smaller breed that requires grooming. These dogs are adaptable and friendly.
Pomeranians are of small size and very intelligent. They require minimal exercise and grooming needs.
Should You Adopt, Buy or Share? Once you’ve decided you want to add a pet to your family, and you have an idea of breed and size, the next decision you’ll need to make is whether to purchase or adopt your newest family member.
While there are arguments to be made for each, given the number of loving dogs who are eagerly awaiting ‘furever’ homes, I would recommend that you consider rescue first.
There are several reasons for choosing to rescue over purchase. The first is that you are saving your new dog from an uncertain fate – you may even be saving his life. There are also economic benefits. For example, many animal shelters will let boomers rescue dogs and other pets for reduced fees.
And if you would like to have the benefits of pets without owning one, there are programs that allow you to “rent a pet, share a pet with other families or foster an animal.” There are also therapy dogs available that can help you overcome physical and emotional issues.
Cats Count Too! I don’t want to forget my fellow boomers who may have cats. Research is showing more and more that the stereotypical ‘cat lady’ may know something others don’t. As it turns out, one study suggests that healthy women over the age of 50 were 40 percent less likely to die of a stroke if they had a pet.
Additionally, cat ownership has been associated with a lower stroke risk than dog ownership. One researcher speculated that cat owners may have personalities that protect their hearts, rather than the cats themselves affecting heart health.
Let’s Have a Conversation: What is your experience with pets? What kind do you have or would you get? Why would you or did you choose that breed? Do you do anything special to keep them healthy?