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  • Alan Fisk

Pet Parents Just Age Better!

Deborah Bates manages walking her two dogs safely by using a carriage to contain one of them at a time.

Deborah Bates loves her two dogs, named Mozart and Desi Arnaz. The 70 ish retired teacher walks them every day in her Detroit neighborhood.

But handling a couple of dogs on leashes at the same time is a little much for Bates, who recently had a knee replaced. So, she pushes Mozart in a baby stroller for a while, then switches to give Desi Arnaz a ride.

 “I can’t imagine life without my two dogs,” says Bates, who is among some 70 million Americans with pets, mostly dogs and cats. “They give unconditional love. And walking dogs is good for seniors like me. I meet the neighbors and get some exercise.”

But aging with pets may not be a good idea for every senior, experts warn. The downside can include  pet-related injuries, grooming and training costs, food bills, veterinary expenses, boarding when pet owners must be away and sometimes just not being able to keep up physically with a strong or aggressive animal.  

“Dogs can be very expensive,” Bates acknowledges. “I spend about $85-90 a month on food alone. I buy them purified water. If I go on vacation I’ve got to have a babysitter.”

And while Bates has never been injured by her dogs, which weigh 10 and 17 pounds respectively, many older adults are not so lucky.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention people over 75 were three times more likely to be injured by falling over pets than individuals under 35. In all, nearly 90,000 people a year are taken to emergency rooms due to falls caused by dogs and cats, with women twice as likely as men to be injured.   

Plus, some 4.5 million dog bites, most of them minor, occur in the U.S. each year, with Chihuahuas being the worst offenders.

Michigan Humane, formerly called the Michigan Humane Society, is the largest animal rights group in the state, and places more than 5,000 animals a year for adoption, many with seniors, says CEO and President Matt Pepper. 

“There are big emotional benefits to pet adoption,” Pepper stresses. “They give seniors a purpose to life, a reason to be active and get out.”

Pepper cites many studies that show having a dog or cat  lowers blood pressure and aids physical and emotional health while reducing loneliness. “The happiness hormones spike when you are around a dog or cat.”

Michigan Humane facilitates pet ownership by helping older adults with pet medical expenses and boarding, if needed. They also work to make sure seniors and pets that are up for adoption are comfortable with each other.

“You need to match needs,” Pepper says. “A dog that needs to run 20 miles a day may not be right for a senior.  We have a team that looks at the needs and capabilities of adopters. Many times, we will pair seniors with older service animals.”

Michigan Humane may also take an adopted pet back if it turns out to be a mismatch. “Animals sometimes act differently when they are in a new home,” Pepper explains. 

A growing area for Michigan Humane is pairing pets with people who have serious problems like Alzheimer’s, autism and Parkinson’s disease. 

A pet can make a big difference to someone who is seriously ill, says Mike Plaskey, who started a pet adoption program within Team Suzy after his wife died of Alzheimer’s in her 50s.

When she became ill their dog Dusty would cuddle up to her, he says of the animal companion that helped lead Suzy home when she took Dusty for a walk and became lost.

Team Suzy offers financial aid to caregivers, education about dementia, and partners with nonprofits like Michigan Humane, where Plaskey is getting dogs for Team Suzy clients – but no cats yet.

“Adoption gives Alzheimer’s victims a sense of responsibility and well-being, taking their minds somewhere else,” says Plaskey.  The Team Suzy mission is to make a significant in our community. 

Dr. Lynn Hartfield, a veterinarian with the Humane Society of Macomb Animal Clinic, is also a dog owner.

“Older people thrive with pets – I have had it said to me many times,” says Hartfield. “Pets make you happy.”

But there can be downsides, she points out.  As pets age, veterinary expenses can increase. Issues like digestive tract problems are common. Special food and prescription drugs may be needed. 

“Serious diseases also crop up – but more quickly, like in older people,” says Hartfield.

The owner of a 15-year-old Yorkie she treated needed expensive testing, including ultrasound, and special  surgery. “With specialists it’s not rare to spend thousands of dollars – even a four-day stay at a specialist pet hospital can be $10,000 to $15,000,” says Hartfield, who recommends owners buy pet insurance.

But even sickness, expenses, falls, bites, scratches and damage to lawns and furniture don’t change how most owners feel about their pets.

Rob looks on as wife, Anne, snuggles MacDuff when he arrived as a puppy in 2018.

Rob Musial, a 75-year-old retired journalist from Grosse Pointe Woods, has a West Highland White Terrier named Macduff that he walks twice a day and calls “a good snuggler.”

But Musial says his yard has to be cleaned every day of the dog’s contributions.  He buys bulky 40-pound bags of Kibble plus canned food for Macduff, and there are veterinarian bills. And when he and his wife went out for one night, they had to board the dog for $50.

Musial is also careful when taking his dog for a walk. “At 15 pounds,” he says, “when the dog pulls you can feel it.”

Some seniors, however, are cuddling up to a high-tech alternative to living pets -- lifelike robotic pets – says Dr. Thomas Jankowski, associate director for research at the Wayne State University Institute of Gerontology.

Local programs, including the Senior Alliance in Wayne County and AgeWays, are providing the robot cats and dogs to seniors in nursing homes and to home-bound older adults suffering from isolation.     

The robots are from a company called Joy For All, with products on that bark or purr and are designed to have a realistic look and feel.

“We haven’t done a scientific study of the effects of these pets,” says Jankowski, “but overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that the robotic pets help to soothe the agitation of people living with dementia, comfort those who are homesick and alleviate loneliness.” 

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