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Can small dogs save your life?

A couple of weeks ago the RSPCA started a campaign to encourage more older people to consider getting a pet not only for companionship but because of the potential health benefits.

Pets are often an excellent source of companionship. They can act as a support system for older people without any family or close friends nearby and can also work as a buffer against social isolation, encouraging people to leave the house and widen their social networks. The responsibility of caring for an animal can also give a sense of purpose after retirement, a reason to get up in the morning and help people to stick to regular routines, to eat and sleep regularly and well.

In her book “Small dogs can save your life” Bel Mooney described how her dog, Bonnie, had seen her through some hard times. A story of survival, transformation and love, Bel tells how her rescue dog, Bonnie in turn rescued Bel when her world fell apart with the all-too public break-up of her 35-year marriage.

And indeed several studies have shown that owning and handling animals can also significantly benefit physical as well as mental health – and may help people live longer, healthier and more enjoyable lives.

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society some years ago demonstrated that older people with pets tend to have better physical health. Pets encourage their owners to be active and even if it is just getting up to let a dog out a few times a day, any activity can benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep joints limber and flexible. Pets may also help simply by providing some physical contact. Studies have also shown that when people pet animals, their blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature decrease.

However, notwithstanding the potential benefits, many older people are deterred from owning a pet because they are worried about what happens if they fall ill or die. If there are no family of friends willing to step in, there are a few options. Organisations such as joint initiative between the RSPCA York and Age UK) offer short term fostering of animals during periods of illness or hospital stays, help with dog walking or lifts to the vet. And the RSPCA’s asian single womenscheme  (for which you need to register – it’s free, although they do encourage a legacy payment) promises to re-home pets should the worst happen.