Pets Help Take Our Minds Off Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Pets make good companions, keep their owners physically active and help us enjoy life. But did you know that pets can also help take our minds off pain?

That’s one of the findings from a new National Poll on Healthy Aging conducted by AARP and the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy. Researchers surveyed over 2,000 American adults aged 50 to 80, who answered a wide range of questions online about the health benefits of pet ownership.

Companionship, social connection and physical activity were positive side effects of pet ownership for many poll respondents.

People said their pets helped them enjoy life (88%), make them feel loved (86%), help reduce stress (79%), keep them physically active (64%) and help them cope with physical and emotional symptoms (60%), including taking their mind off pain (34%).

For those who said their health was fair or poor, pet ownership offers the most benefits. More than 70 percent of those older adults said their pet helps them cope with physical or emotional symptoms, and nearly half (46%) said their pets help distract them from pain.

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"Relationships with pets tend to be less complicated than those with humans, and pets are often a source of great enjoyment," says Mary Janevic, PhD, an assistant research scientist at the U-M School of Public Health. "They also provide older adults with a sense of being needed and loved."

More than half of those who owned pets said they did so specifically to have a companion and nearly two-thirds said having a pet helps connect them to other people.

"We have long known that pets are a common and naturally occurring source of support," says Cathleen Connell, PhD, a professor at the U-M School of Public Health. “Although the benefits of pets are significant, social connections and activities with friends and family are also key to quality of life across the lifespan. Helping older adults find low cost ways to support pet ownership while not sacrificing other important relationships and priorities is an investment in overall mental and physical health."

While pets come with benefits, they can also bring concerns. Nearly one in five older adults (18%) said having a pet puts a strain on their budget. Some owners even put their animals' needs ahead of their own health.

"For people living on a fixed income, expenses related to health care for pets, and especially pets that have chronic health issues, can be a struggle. Older adults can also develop health problems or disabilities that make pet care difficult," said Janevic.

"More activity, through dog walking or other aspects of pet care, is almost always a good thing for older adults. But the risk of falls is real for many, and six percent of those in our poll said they had fallen or injured themselves due to a pet," said poll director Preeti Malani, MD. “At the same time, given the importance of pets to many people, the loss of a pet can deal a very real psychological blow that providers, family and friends should be attuned to."

More than half of older adults (55%) reported having a pet. Among pet owners, the majority (68%) had dogs, 48% had cats, and 16% had a small pet such as a bird, fish, or hamster.

Over half of pet owners (53%) reported that their pets sleep in their bed. Dog lovers are often told that’s a bad idea, but a recent study found an "overwhelmingly positive" response from owners who say they slept better with their dogs.