Pets & Longevity

Can having a pet help you live longer?

senior woman driving convertible with poodle
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Pets offer love, companionship and even exercise if you’ve got a dog that needs to get outdoors every day. They're family, no doubt about it, but can they actually help extend your life?

The verdict on whether pets can help you live longer is a bit astonishing, even to the researchers who discovered it. University of California, Riverside health researchers Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin analyzed data collected from an 80-year study of 1,500 people.

The study, initiated in 1921 by psychologist Lewis Terman, is one of the only long-term studies that follows people from their childhood onward.

About the Findings

Subjects in their 60s were asked detailed questions about how often they played with pets. After fourteen years researchers analyzed mortality data. Results suggest that interacting with pets played no role in the participants’ likelihood of surviving. The results were the same even when Friedman and Martin examined only people who were socially isolated, for whom a close relationship with an animal might be more important.

The Value of Relationships

Friedman and Martin concluded that being connected to other people in their community did in fact enhance the subjects' longevity. These findings seem to conflict with other data about the value of social relationships for people as they age. For example, research published in 1980 found that the one-year survival rate for people discharged from a coronary care unit was greater for those with a pet.

Ground-breaking research in the late 1970s by psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin found that just having to care for a houseplant kept elderly nursing home residents happier and alive longer. Though that finding was cited as a reason to give residents more control over their environment, it follows that a sense of responsibility and emotional interaction - the same emotions involved for pet owners - might account for the improved longevity.

The Benefits of Animal Companionship

Certainly interacting with animals has been found to improve quality of life - if not length of life. Animal assisted therapy programs that use pets as mascots or therapy animals are widely implemented in hospitals and nursing homes, and have been shown to improve depression and loneliness in the elderly.

In Japan, where concerns about allergic reactions and bites have kept nursing homes from employing live pets, robotic therapy animals have been substituted with much success. In particular, Paro, a robotic seal with artificial fur and a lovable face, has been used in several countries, including Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and the United States. A 2011 paper published in Gerontology describes improvement in depression scores of residents in nursing homes employing the robotic seal.

While pets may not be proven to have a direct effect on our longevity, people who do rely on them for company, friendship and affection will no doubt vouch for the impact animals have on their well-being regardless of age.

Sources:

Friedman, H.S. and Martin, L.R. “The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study.” Penguin Books. March 2011.

Langer, Ellen J.; Rodin, Judith. “The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 34(2), Aug 1976, 191-198.

Marian R. Banks and William A. Banks. “The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Loneliness in an Elderly Population in Long-Term Care Facilities.” J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci (2002) 57(7): M428-M432.

Robert J Behling, James Haefner, Michael Stowe. “Animal Programs and Animal Assisted Therapy in Illinois Long-Term Care Facilities Twenty Years Later (1990-2010)." Academy of Health Care Management Journal. Cullowhee: 2011. Vol. 7, Iss. 2; pg. 109-118.

Takanori Shibata and Kazuyoshi Wada. “Robot Therapy: A New Approach for Mental Healthcare of the Elderly – A Mini-Review.” Gerontology 2011;57:378–386. http://content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Aktion=ShowPDF&ArtikelNr=319015&Ausgabe=255319&ProduktNr=224091&filename=319015.pdf

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