DOGS: FRIENDS OR FOES OF THE ELDERLY?

“A dog is a man’s (woman’s) best friend…” We are familiar with this phrase and any pet owner will vouch for the joy and companionship that pets provide.  For seniors or the elderly, pet ownership has been associated with many physical and emotional benefits.  Pet owners frequently have lower blood pressure and pulse rates, and tend to be more active, experience less depression and loneliness.  This has been attributed partially to the unconditional love, affection, and companionship that their animals provide.

Someone wrote that “a dog is the only creature on earth that loves you more than he loves himself,” moms not included of course.  This brings me to the topic of therapy dogs.  Often therapy dogs can stimulate interactions between someone with dementia and another person.  At times dementia patients can be unpredictable and their responses to any animal may vary from day to day. An agitated person often can be calmed by stroking the head of a dog for several minutes.  This is better than being overmedicated for some patients.  Additionally, the dog can bring pleasure to the patient just by being there and wagging its tail.  The animal does not require a response and is happy to come again and again.    The time of day for the visit is important as well as the length of the visit.  Better to make the visit shorter than staying too long.  Large dogs able to sit by a wheelchair and lay their heads in someone’s lap, inviting a scratch to the head or a scratch behind the ear.  The therapy dog benefits as much from the visits as they give.  It is important to know the animal’s temperament and energy level.  The “right” dog matched with the “right” person can make all the difference in the world and lead to the desired outcomes.

A good dog may prove to be a good friend for an elderly person; however, there is always two sides to a coin.  Now for flip side.  A good dog may also prove to be a foe.  Slips and falls are a major cause of accidents among the elderly.  These accidents can be debilitating often stripping the elderly of some of their independence and in extreme cases, may be the cause of death.  Every year about 21,000 seniors are treated in emergency rooms for falls related to pets. Many of these falls involve fractures which can be life changing for elderly persons.

If you own a pet (or pets) or you are considering adopting or encouraging a loved one to do so, you will want to be aware of some of the biggest fall risks associated with pet ownership:

  • Animals, especially small ones, are often underfoot or rubbing your ankles.  A charming behavior but a real tripping hazard for the elderly whose sense of balance is not what it once was.
  • Chasing a pet.  You open your door and your indoor pet bolts.  You chase your pet before it gets hurt or lost.  Many pet-related falls occur because pet owners put the safety of their pets ahead of their own.
  • Dogs, especially large ones, who jump and knock you over.
  • Walking a pet makes the elderly more active out of necessity but many of the elderly fall as a result of being pulled by a dog on a leash.
  • Pet paraphernalia, dishes, and toys let out and underfoot can be dangerous to the elderly whose vision is not what it once was.

These are just few of the pitfalls of pet ownership for the elderly, pitfalls which can be managed with awareness, caution, and being careful.  Now that you have read both sides which is it?  Friend or Foe?

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