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Mature Content: Praising the power of pets

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

Nancy Peterson worked as a registered veterinary technician, trained dogs for people with disabilities and was the Community Cats Program Manager for The Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization. She serves on the boards of the National Kitten Coalition and Neighborhood Cats and is a kitten foster care provider for Colorado Animal Rescue.

Upon retiring, I moved from Maryland to Carbondale with my sister and our two cats. Friends here applauded our inclusion of a mudroom. “What’s a mudroom?” we asked. It wasn’t that we needed a space to remove boots, sports equipment, coats and wet clothing before entering the house. Rather, we wanted to prevent our indoor cats from escaping when we opened the front door. 

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Our home’s other cat-friendly features include a room where I foster kittens for Colorado Animal Rescue, a catio (enclosed patio) for our cats to keep them and birds safe and spaces under the bathroom counters for litter boxes.

According to AARP, about 70% of people from their 40s to mid-70s consider their pets when it comes to choosing housing. I feel better knowing this and recently celebrated National Pet Parents Day on April 24.

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Those of us who share our lives with pets are blessed — often in ways we may not even realize. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research shows that pets provide many health benefits to everyone, but especially to older adults. Pets give us companionship, improve cognitive function and help prevent anxiety and symptoms of PTSD.

With more than one-third of Americans older than 65 and half of those over 85 living alone, social isolation is a growing public health concern. It’s not only our relationships with people that affect mental and physical health; studies continue to demonstrate that having a pet and interacting with animals facilitate human connections, provide social support and decrease loneliness and depression.

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Scientific studies also demonstrate that pleasant interactions with animals increase oxytocin levels in the brain. Oxytocin slows our heart rate and breathing, inhibits stress hormones and creates a sense of calm, comfort and focus. 

Still not convinced? Other studies reveal that interaction with a friendly pet positively affects our levels of cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Norepinephrine and epinephrine enable the body to deal with stress by promoting alertness and increasing blood flow to the skeletal muscles. Cortisol enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. 

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Studies being funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute are aimed at scientifically assessing the impact of feline companionship on mental and emotional health in older adults participating in an animal shelter foster program. However,  I can personally attest to the benefits and joy of fostering kittens. I’m not a morning person, but I can’t wait to get up and see my little ones first thing every day. Watching them develop physically and behaviorally amazes me. Did I mention the laughs? I also have lots of visitors, because everyone wants to meet the kittens and help play with (socialize) them.

Who needs an alarm clock when a lick or a paw on the face says, “Let’s eat breakfast; let’s go for a walk!” Throwing our dog’s ball or wiggling our cat’s wand toy not only strengthens the bond with our pets through play; we exercise and have fun as well.

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Regularly playing with or walking pets can decrease our blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Walking or playing with dogs in our neighborhoods, the Hendrick Dog Park or Carbondale Nature Park affords us opportunities to meet neighbors and enjoy the great outdoors that surrounds our beautiful town. Being in nature brings benefits too.

In return for our pets’ gifts to us, it’s our responsibility to help them feel safe and loved. Doing so includes providing nutritious food and fresh water, exercise, companionship, mental stimulation, protection from weather and regular veterinary care. AARP’s pet information (at aarp.org) will help you protect your pet, even if you become ill, incapacitated or die unexpectedly.

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Pets don’t do things out of spite or experience guilt. They should never be hit, yelled at, kicked or abandoned. It’s cruel and harms our relationship with them. Dogs look worried when you come home to a mess because they’ve learned to associate their mess with your anger. Cats who pee outside the litter box may have a urinary infection or arthritis that makes it difficult or painful to access the litter box, especially if it’s in a faraway location, such as a basement, or if the sides of the box are too high.

My fellow Carbondale Age-Friendly Community Initiative steering committee members and I experience the joys of sharing our lives with pets. Of the 94 million pet cats and 90 million pet dogs in the United States, we have five dogs and one cat, as well as 11 granddogs and two grandcats. We know, even without the science, that pets make our lives PAWsitively wonderful. 

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Considering a pet? Please adopt. Can’t adopt? Please foster. These actions save lives — theirs and ours.

Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age-Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI)

Tags: #CAFCI #cats #Colorado Animal Rescue #dogs #Mature Content #Nancy Peterson #pets #seniors
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