The Amazing Healing Power of Dogs for Senior Health

The Amazing Healing Power of Dogs for Senior Health

They say that dogs are man’s best friend. And if you’ve ever seen a happy dog hanging out with its owner, you’ve seen the unconditional love and devotion that these wonderful creatures can bestow. Being in the presence of a tail-wagging dynamo of joy can make anyone smile – even if you aren’t necessarily a “dog person.”


Lots of seniors are dog people. According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, more than half of older adults say they have a pet. Of those pets, about 68% are dogs.1 And there’s good reason, as dogs provide companionship, structure for your days, plenty of exercise, and an improvement in your quality of life.

Some dogs can even be your protector, alerting you to any trouble. Some dogs can even sense when their owner is in distress and needs help, and will signal that concern in their own way. (And if they do, stay calm and use your emergency alert system for elderly adults to get the help you need).

If you aren’t in a position to own a dog for whatever reason, that’s okay. Even a short, sweet interaction with someone else’s dog can give your health a boost. And one scientist after another has proven that it’s not just in your head. These interactions with dogs really are just as good for your health as you might think they are. 

Need to hear some of the evidence? Let’s dive in.

What a Dog Can Do for Your Health

The joys and health boosts that come from owning a pet cannot be understated. Elderly pet owners might find that dogs provide a particular advantage, as they need to be walked and exercised daily, requiring their owners to get out and about.

According to the American Heart Association, pet owners are more likely to be physically active than those without a furry companion, and that activity can lower the risk of many problems, including heart disease and depression.2 But there’s more:3

·        Those who have a heart attack or stroke often recover much faster when they have a dog around. And not only did they recover well, they had a lower chance of another cardiovascular event happening to them.

·        A whopping 95% of senior pet owners say that their furry companion lowers their stress levels.

·        A senior who has a canine friend is less likely to suffer from diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and many other chronic ailments.4 Much of this is thanks to the exercise a dog can encourage you to get – after all, they need to get out there and play! Just remember to use a mobile medical alert pendant with GPS and fall detection to keep you safe everywhere you go.

·        When a companion animal is nearby, seniors tend to talk to it and touch it, which helps alleviate loneliness and lowers stress hormones. And as you might remember from other research floating around these last few years, loneliness and social isolation can be devastating to senior health.

·        A dog can keep your brain sharper. Most seniors would greatly prefer spending time with their pet instead of watching television as a way to lower their stress levels. That means less zoning out over mindless sitcoms and instead, doing things that actively use your brain.

The benefits of dog ownership go even further than this list. But what if you don’t own a dog? Can you really still get a big benefit from simply hanging out with one?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Even Five Minutes Shows Benefits

There are many studies that discuss the good things dogs can do for those who simply take the time to enjoy being in their presence.

For instance, recent studies have discovered that petting a dog for as little as five minutes can lead to a spike in oxytocin, which is the feel-good hormone that helps you bond with someone else. But the truly amazing part is that when a person pets a dog, that dog’s level of oxytocin rises as well. In other words, the interaction makes both the dog and the person happy, and makes both of them want more attention and affection from each other. It’s a beautiful cycle for everyone.

Who wouldn’t love being in the middle of a room full of puppies? Researchers in the UK did a randomized, controlled trial on children, where they gave the kids brief time with dogs twice each week. The children who played with the puppies, even for only a few minutes, showed less stress and improved executive functioning.

What does this study mean for seniors? Executive functioning is part of the cognitive process. It allows you to do things like plan out your day, stay on the task at hand, and avoid distractions. The better your executive functioning, the less likely you are to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s.

So it’s entirely possible that petting a dog, even for a few moments, can have a benefit for your brain. 

The even better news is that the effect the puppies had on the schoolchildren lingered for a long while. One month later, the effects were still there, and there’s some evidence that the good outcome was still there even six months later.

Why Dogs Improve Senior Health

The ways that dogs help us on a physical level are pretty obvious, borne out by day-to-day observation and backed up by scientific study. But what is it about dogs, in particular, that seems to bring out the best in us?

One big reason is that dogs live in the moment, according to Megan Mueller, an associate professor at the Cumming School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “They’re experiencing their environment with wonder and awe all the time,” Mueller told NPR. “They’re not bringing up what happened to them earlier in the day or what they’re thinking about in the future. They’re there right now.”5

That in-the-moment presence can be enough to make us take a deep breath and see the world in a different way. When a dog is mesmerized by something in the backyard or starts wagging their tail so hard their whole body shakes, whatever catches their attention might also catch yours. It means you take a moment to step out of your usual day-to-day stresses and simply be in the experience with them.

And besides that, as anyone who has ever owned a dog knows, these are creatures who truly “see” you in a way that maybe your human companions don’t.

Dogs can often read your mood and understand that there are times to be playful, loving, or even simply very quiet. That allows you to feel whatever emotions you might be dealing with at the time without the worry of reassuring someone else, as you might have to with a human companion. Feeling understood can lift an enormous weight from your shoulders, even if you are understood by a creature who can’t communicate their kindness in words.

Should You Get a Dog?

Obviously dogs are good for the body, heart, mind, and even the soul. But should you have one as your constant companion?

While there are many benefits to dog ownership, there are also some challenges. Food can become expensive, especially if your dog needs a special diet. Treatment for a variety of ailments becomes more common as they age – just as it is with humans – and that can become expensive. Be aware of the expense and plan accordingly before you choose a dog.

If you ever suffer a fall or other accident, you might be out of commission for a while, which means you will need someone to help you take care of your dog. And when you come back home to recover, it might take a while to get your mobility back enough to play with your pet. With that in mind, consider a dog that fits your level of mobility. For instance, a small senior dog who doesn’t want to walk far might be good for those with very limited mobility, while a larger breed with high energy might be best for those who are very active every day.

If you do choose to get a dog, it’s also important to choose an emergency button alarm. Why? Because dogs might happily nap near your feet or prance around you when you are pouring their food, and that can lead to a higher risk of falls. And while you should always play with abandon when your dog wants to fetch a ball, you must also be careful where you step. Be ready for any medical emergency or accident with medical alert technology at your fingertips.