Owning a pet in later life: What you need to know

Considering getting a cat, dog or other pet? Read this first

Portrait of cats and dogs sitting together

Owning a pet is a wonderful experience and for older people, particularly those that live alone, a furry, feathered or fishy companion can make the world of difference. If you are considering a taking on a pet, here's what you need to know.

See also: Cats or dogs: Which love humans more?

The benefits of pet ownership
Research has shown that having a pet in the home can improve general health, with one Cambridge University study revealing that pet owners reported fewer headaches, coughs and colds. Furthermore, according to the Pet Health Council, the simple act of watching fish swimming or stroking a dog or cat can reduce the heart rate, thereby helping to lowerblood pressure.

Besides the physical benefits, pets can do wonders for mental health too. They can help to reduce feelings of loneliness and depression, and for those that choose a canine companion, the daily walk not only aids general fitness and wellbeing, but can introduce those living alone to like-minded walkers, providing an often much-needed social aspect to life.

And because older people are often at home for much of the day, they have plenty of time to devote to pets, making it a ideal situation for both.

What to consider
Owning a pet, particularly those that live for a significant number of years, is a serious responsibility. Therefore it is essential that you think carefully before taking on an animal, and choose a pet that suits your lifestyle. For instance, some dogs require more exercise than others, and it's not necessarily related to size, so do your research if you're considering a canine companion.

The cost of keeping animals is also an important consideration. The 2012 PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report revealed that a dog will cost its owners between £16,000 and £31,000 during its lifetime, while a cat could set you back £17,000. Vets bills, vaccinations, flea and worm treatment, and of course food, all add up so it's essential that you are able to cope with the cost. And insurance, though optional, is worth looking into in case your pet suffers an injury or serious illness.

If things change
For many older pet owners, what might happen to their beloved animals should they need hospital treatment or to move into a care home is a big worry, but there is help available that allows you to plan for a change in circumstances.

The Cinnamon Trust, for instance, is a national charity that aims to keep owners and their pets together, and has a team of volunteers that can help with everything from day-to-day care to arranging a foster home if you have to go to hospital. The charity can also find long-term foster homes for pets when their owner dies.

The Trust is also able to provide a list of sheltered accommodation that allows pets, which means you may be able to stay together if you can no longer live in your own home. Even where that is not possible, foster carers can often arrange to meet regularly so that you can still see your pet.

Of course, it's a sad truth that some pets outlive their owners, and it's important to consider what might happen to your companion in the event of your death. If friends or family are not able to take on a pet, speak to charities such as the Cinnamon Trust or National Animal Welfare Trust, or even a local animal rescue centre that operates a no-kill policy.

That way you can provide plenty of information about your pet, giving them the best chance of matching him or her to a suitable and loving new home should the worst happen. In the case of the Cinnamon Trust and the National Animal Welfare Trust, you are even given a pet care card, much like an organ donor card.

Though it's not something most of us like to think about, knowing that you pet will have a safe, warm and loving home in the future means you can enjoy your companion without having to worry.

Have you taken on a pet in later life? Has it made a difference to your life, and how? Leave your comments below...
The Benefits Of Owning A Pet