`Tis the season for shopping and gift-giving. While shopping for that perfect gift, considering a pet for someone with a disability will require much consideration.
I will confess to being one of 10 to 30% of the population that is a cat lover, so when it comes to choosing a pet I am a bit prejudiced. Being a cat owner means accepting being treated with indifference as commonplace, or going out for the evening and coming home to this creature you care for, acting as though you’re a perfect stranger. Anything dropped on the floor instantly becomes a play toy and disappears forever. Since mine is an in-door cat there is the matter of a litter box. I would have never believed such a sweet little fur-ball could produce such a god-awful odor. Yet with all the loving attention and gifts given, the biggest reward is stepping on, in bare feet, an ice-cold hairball on the kitchen floor, which was barfed up during the night.
Despite all of the above negatives, there would be a void in my life if she wasn’t there. In the middle of a cold winter night, having her jump in bed and curl behind my legs and purr is somehow comforting even though I find myself sleeping in some awkward positions, not willing to move or roll-over for fear of disturbing her.
In these times of maintaining social distancing and isolation have been difficult for everyone. For seniors living alone or in a nursing home, combined with the holidays, this is even more so. For those isolated because of a disability, the changes in routine and lack of social contact can have an equally negative effect on their lives.
According to the CDC, “there are many health benefits of owning a pet”. They go on to state that “There are many health benefits of owning a pet.” There seems to be an attachment that forms, it’s a bond and goes beyond just food and water or being familiar and comfortable with one another. CDC studies have shown that this bond between humans and pets can increase fitness while also bring about increased happiness.
Reports by the CDC found this relationship between humans and their pets have some health benefits which include:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased cholesterol levels
- Decreased triglyceride levels
- Decreased feelings of loneliness
- Increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities
- Increased opportunities for socialization
Additionally, pets have been shown to help lower stress and bring about happiness.
Consideration for Selecting the Right Pet
When thinking about adopting that perfect pet for you, or your family members or member. To help you with your research, the list below is adapted from the CDC recommended questions to ask yourself the following questions before choosing a pet:
- How long will the animal live?
- What does the animal eat?
- How much exercise does the pet need?
- How large will it become?
- How much will it cost for veterinary care?
- Is there enough time (or capability) to properly care for and clean up after the pet?
- What type of habitat does this pet need to be healthy?
- What type of exercise does this pet need?
- Are pets allowed in the home, apartment, or condominium?
- Is the young person, older person, or people with weak immune systems who will care for or be around the pet?
What may be the most important consideration is: Does anyone in the immediate or extended family have allergies to any animal? The health concern can halt the process of adding a pet to the household before it begins.
For additional information and health concerns visiting the CDC website is recommended:
Choosing the Right Pet for a Senior
For older adults considering adding a pet to the home, be aware there are things to think about and to take into account before bring that pet home.
What is the best pet for a senior citizen? Esther Kane believes: “The best type of pet to get if you are an older adult is one that fits your lifestyle, your needs, your home environment and one that you can physically care for.”
Seniors who rely on a wheelchair or bed-bound or have difficulties walking with or without using some kind of aid will find caring for a dog, cat, or even a rabbit difficult. Caring for a pet would be impossible without assistance from others.
Below is a list of questions and issues to realistically to consider when choosing the best pet for senior life:
- What size pet can be best accommodated in your home.
- Can you manage just one pet or more?
- Can you provide enough time for your pet to keep healthy and happy?
- Can you afford the cost of food, vet visits, training (if needed)? This must also include any toys or furniture need for the comfort of your pet.
- Do you have support in place to care for your pet, if or when you become unable to?
- Are you able to tolerate (and repair) any damage caused by your pet?
- What do you want from your pet(s)? Protection? Companionship? (How does one cuddle with or interact with fish?)
- Are you physically capable of caring for your pet? Will you be capable 5 or 10 years from now?
Veterans, PTSD, and Pets
For many of our veterans returning home from the wars in the middle east, the experiences have left them traumatized. Most of these go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is an anxiety disorder with a variety of symptoms. For example: having flashbacks, nightmares, or emotional numbness to name a few.
Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and medication have shown reasonable success. Many going through these therapies can help them to work through their symptoms lessening the impact the condition has on their lives and sometimes flares do occur.
Additionally, it can be hard to admit they are struggling and need help. To make matters worse it can be even harder to admit to someone who has never been at war and believe they could help with the symptoms. Finally, many veterans simply find it difficult to access the help they need.
Psychologytoday.com reports some of the reasons dogs might help those with PTSD:
There is a bright spot for these veterans in the form of dogs.
- “Dogs are vigilant. Anyone who has ever had a nightmare knows that a dog in the room provides information. They immediately let you know if you are really in immediate danger or if you just had a nightmare. This extra layer of vigilance mimics the buddy system in the military.”
- “Dogs are protective. Just like the buddy system in the military. Someone is there to have your back.
- “Dogs respond well to authoritative relationships. Some military personnel return from their deployments and have difficulty functioning in their relationships. They are used to giving and getting orders. This usually doesn’t work well in the typical American home, and many servicemen and women have been told to knock that off once they got home. Dogs love it.”
- “Dogs love unconditionally. Some military personnel returning from their deployments have difficulty adjusting to the civilian world.” They soon realize the skills they were taught and applied while in the military do not apply and do not transfer to their new civilian life. Although they were well respected for their skills in the military, the lack of respect for these skills in civilian life can be devastating. “Dogs don’t play any of these games. They just love.”
- “Dogs help relearn trust. Trust is a big issue in PTSD. It can be very difficult to feel safe in the world after certain experiences, and being able to trust the immediate environment can take some time. Dogs help heal by being trustworthy.”
- “Dogs help to remember feelings of love. The world can look pretty convoluted after deployment to a war zone. But it seems vets have found not what happens in their relationship with their pets, all they feel from their dog is love.
The author ends by stating: “the best part is that it doesn’t seem to matter if the dog is a Pitbull or a Chihuahua or a plain old mutt.”
Pets for Your Child with Autism
This section must start with a disclaimer: I am not an expert on Autism, or do I recommend a pet for those with Autism. The choice of a pet in this situation depends greatly on the person the pet is intended for. I can say I have seen some positive outcomes.
Have you given thoughts to getting a pet, but you just are unsure if it is a good idea? Do you have a pet but have not figured out how to help your child with Autism to be gentle with the animal? What type of pet would be best suited for your child? Is a service dog appropriate? How do you teach your autistic child to interact with a pet introduced to the household safely?
An article by Amelia Dalphonse provides pros and cons to many of the questions one may have as well as some the readers may not have thought of.
Dalphonse believes: “Pets are wonderful for children in a variety of ways:
- Teach responsibility
- Help with emotional regulation
- Service animals
With these benefits come some specific challenges:
- Responsibility is often like adding another child to the family
- Young children often need extra supervision around pets to ensure safety
- Some pets may be disturbed by loud noises or challenging behavior
So, what is the answer? It’s up to the individual family to decide what is right for them.”
Dalphonse explains: “Many children feel more understood by pets than by parents. This may be because they never judge, get angry, or yell.”
There has been some research that found a connection between autistic children, owning a pet, and improvement in social behavior. For children with autism, there is often a struggle with empathy and the consideration of how their behavior impacts others. Dalphonse points out: “Learning prosocial behavior by taking care of a pet can help them develop this key skill.” In the article, Dalphonse continues to acknowledge: “the research is just emerging and not definitive, this could be a significant benefit for children with autism. This benefit may be more apparent with specially trained therapy animals.”
There is no question that pet-owning comes with an abundance of responsibilities. Even very young children can learn to provide some basic care like providing food and water or brushing the pet. It should be noted that this can be helpful, but it depends on the child. In some cases caring for a pet might represent just another thing to be opposed to.
Help with Emotional Regulation
Pets have been shown to greatly reduce stress and anxiety and they can provide a source of comfort in life. Again a cat person, there is little I find more comforting than the sound of a cat purring. That unconditional love and nonjudgmental companionship can provide a soothing diversion from stress and the promotion of emotional well-being.
Autistic children can benefit from service animals for a variety of needs. They can act as a second set of eyes warning the adults that the child is engaged in something dangerous. Service animals have been trained to warn of seizures or that the child may need assistance. Service animals are well trained, as a result making their cost high and you will find they are difficult to obtain. Be sure a service animal is a right choice for your family before investing.
Added Responsibilities for Parents
Caring for a child with special needs can be overwhelming and adding the needs of a pet may be unreasonable. There is allowing time for training, play, and another mouth to feed. On top of the time required, there is also the pet’s health and vet appointment to meet and to pay for. One other consideration is travel. If you can travel with the child, you may have increased this difficulty by including a pet or having to find someone to look after the pet during your absence, or if for a long period, can you afford the cost of boarding your pet.
Dalphonse reminds us: “Children with autism engage in a variety of challenging behaviors and may have difficulty interacting appropriately and safely with a pet. These children may require extensive supervision around pets which can further strain the resources of already exhausted parents and caregivers.”
So Many More Pros and Cons
There are so many pros and cons in adding a pet to one’s life. What at first glance might seem simple can become a complex issue. However, the effort can be worth it.
It has been well documented for some time now, about the bonds that develop between humans and animals. This post has primarily covered dogs and cats, but there are far more creatures that can provide companionship and add to the life experience of human beings. This discussion is just a glimpse of the information available. There are provided below a few of the many links on the internet that may help in choosing if you should or shouldn’t bring a pet into your home. Kira Newman wrote: “It could be that adopting a needy animal confers its own benefits, as doing good deeds tends to make us happier and healthier.” Newman goes on to suggest:” It’s clear that what we receive from dogs in love and care comes back to us a hundredfold.” That applies to those living a life with a disability or loneliness.
One final comment, I started by discussing my relationship with my cat and at this point in my life, it is difficult to imagine my home being without her to care for and her connection with me. She helps me through sadness and the days of depression or stress. My wife and I at times find it hard to believe the companionship she is capable of providing.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). About Pets & People. Retrieved from:
Kane, Esther. (20180. What Is The Best Pet For A Senior Citizen?. Retrieved From:
Stecker, Tracy, Ph.D. (2011). Why dogs heal PTSD. Retrieved from:
Dalphonse, Amelia. (2019). Pets and Children with Autism: What You Should Know. Retrieved from: https://accessibleaba.com/blog/pets-and-children-with-autism
Newman, Kira, M. (2018) The Science-Backed Benefits of Being a Cat Lover. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_science_backed_benefits_of_being_a_cat_lover
Additional Information: (these are just a few, there are many more sites)
Wang, Karen. How to choose the right pet for a family with specials needs.
Autism Speaks. Assistance Dog Information.
Paws with a Cause. Service Dogs For Children with Autism.
Coren, Stanley, Ph.D., DSc, FRSC. (2009). Health and Psychological Benefits of Bonding with a Pet Dog. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/200906/health-and-psychological-benefits-bonding-pet-dog
Dalphonse, Amelia. Should You Get a Service Dog for Your Child with Autism?
Langtree, Ian. (2020). Therapy Cats for Emotional Support or Comfort Animals.
National Center for PTSD. Dogs and PTSD.
Perdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. Service dogs & PTSD.
CNN Wire. (2020). Lifelike robotic pets used to help isolated seniors avoid loneliness.
Whitney Rehabilitation Care Center. (2019). How Pets Can Help Fight Loneliness in Seniors. https://www.whitneyrehab.com/how-pets-can-help-fight-loneliness-in-seniors/
Suttie, Jill. (2020) The Science-Backed Benefits of Being a Dog Owner