By Rebecca Simmons
When Marjorie Smith walked into the Idaho Humane Society
in Boise two years ago, the 72-year-old was struggling with
the recent loss of her son and the 9-11 tragedy.
Like thousands of other seniors, Smith was battling a
problem that threatened to consume her. The retired
secretary wasn't suffering from cancer or heart disease,
but from loneliness. Divorced and living alone, Smith was
looking for something, or someone, to help her.
Gus had been waiting patiently, but his family still
hadn't come back for him. A ten-year-old Scottish terrier,
he had spent his entire life with the same family. But once
the children had grown up and moved away, Gus was forced to
spend his days alone. His family felt that they didn't have
the time to take care of him anymore and decided to
relinquish Gus to the local shelter.
It's a common scenario all across America. Divorce ends
marriages, children move, family and friends pass away and,
as we age, loneliness and depression become all too
familiar. But many seniors have found a way to combat
isolation—by adopting a pet through their local
When Smith saw Gus walk into the Humane Society's
waiting room, she was impressed with his attitude. "He
walked with dignity and made me smile," she says. Smith
adopted Gus on the spot, and they became fast friends,
spending their days taking walks around the neighborhood
and lounging in the rocking chair. "We bonded immediately,
and I have never been sorry for a moment that I went to the
shelter that evening," says Smith.
And It's Good for You, Too
"Emotionally, pets can bring new meaning and purpose to
the life of a senior who is living far away from friends or
family," says Kelly Connolly, HSUS issues specialist for
companion animals. "The unconditional love and commitment
to their owners is almost like free therapy. They can act
as friends, entertainers, and warm, fuzzy bundles of joy.
Having a pet in an elderly person's life can offer them a
sense of well being, a sense of encouragement, and even a
reason for living. Being responsible for another life often
gives new meaning to the lives of those who are living
alone or far from loved ones. Caring for and providing a
loving home to a companion animal also helps elderly people
to remain active and stay healthy."
Gus has made Smith a believer in the power of pet
companionship. "He has changed [my life] completely. I'm
sure he has added years to my life. I have found that
adopting a pet can help a person after a death of a loved
one or just being lonely. I can't imagine what it would be
like without him. I am lonely only if I have to leave him
at the vet for a short time."
In addition to easing loneliness, pets may also make
seniors healthier. Studies suggest that contact with
animals can lower blood pressure. Research also indicates a
link between pet ownership and an increased survival rate
for cardiac patients. Other potential health benefits can
include decreased stress, reduced bone loss, lowered
cholesterol levels, and improved blood circulation.
"For years, it's been medically documented that
companion animals—such as dogs, cats and rabbits—help
people live longer and healthier lives," says Connolly.
Taking the Next Step
Although animals make great companions for people of any
age, pets can have important benefits for seniors. But
before adopting a new companion, seniors need to understand
the amount of dedication that goes into caring for an
animal. Seniors need to be sure they have the time and the
means to care for a pet, both physically and
It's also important to consider the kind of pet to
adopt. Animal care professionals often advise seniors to
consider adopting an adult dog or cat. An older animal may
be a better fit for their lifestyle than a puppy or
"Unlike a puppy or kitten, adult animals are more likely
to be calm, already housetrained and less susceptible to
unpredictable behavior," says Connolly. "Older pets are
often more easily physically managed by seniors than a
stronger, more excitable younger animal."
Ready, Set, Adopt
Once the decision to adopt a pet has been made there are
many programs out there to help. As more people discover
the benefits of animal companionship for older Americans,
resources and programs have emerged to make finding and
keeping a new pet much easier.
The first place to which seniors should turn is their
local shelter. Adopting from a shelter has its advantages.
Not only do they have a great selection of adult animals
for adoption, but they also have purebred animals. In fact,
on average, purebreds account for about 25% of a shelter's
dog population. If you have a specific breed in mind that's
not available at your local shelter, breed placement groups
(often referred to as "rescues") are also a reliable
Adopting from a shelter is not only a great way to help
out a homeless animal, but it's also cost-effective.
Adoption fees, which are extremely low compared with the
cost of purchasing an animal from a pet store or breeder,
typically include vaccinations as well as spay or neuter
Another advantage of shelters is that many of them offer
senior programs. The Idaho Humane Society, where Smith
adopted Gus, has placed thousands of pets with seniors
through a program called Pets for People, which waives the
adoption fee, spay/neuter charge and initial vaccination
when a senior adopts an adult pet.
Check with your local shelter to see if it has a seniors
program. If not, shelters can still offer a wealth of
information and support to new pet owners.
"Was it fate that brought [Gus and I] together at the
shelter that day?" Smith wonders. Maybe the stars were
aligned just right or it was the pair's lucky day…or maybe
seniors and pets are just meant to be together.
Rebecca Simmons is the
Outreach Communications Coordinator for the Companion
Animals section of The HSUS.