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12 Oct 2023

Surround yourself with fine furry, feathered or even fibre optic friends


United States President Ronald Reagan observed that “the best thing for the inside of a man is to be on the outside of a horse.” 

He could well have been talking about any sort of animal, even those with a digital approach to life.   

Animals provide a myriad of benefits for people and that particularly includes those who are getting older. Studies abound that show the health benefits of having companion animals in one’s life. These include physical fitness, gained from taking a pet for a walk, through to increased mental wellbeing.   

Pet owners have been found to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure than non-pet owners. Across the whole Animal Kingdom it’s clear that dogs, and cats, bring out the best in people helping them to stay more active and retain their ability to perform daily activities for longer. 

The presence of a pooch increases self-esteem and life satisfaction, and dramatically lowers loneliness and rates of depression. So it’s no surprise, then, that pet owners tend to live longer.


Seal the deal

In many situations it’s not practical to have pets—at least the ‘living’ kind. Technology has come to the rescue with ‘sociable’ companion robots that deliver comparable benefits to helping people to age well. 

At the Selwyn Foundation a small “colony” of baby robotic Canadian Harp seals have taken up residence.  Featuring a variety of sensors throughout their fluffy, anti-bacterial fur, with touch-sensitive whiskers, and a complex system of silent motors, the seals respond to interaction with life-like noises and movements.

Residents benefit from the companionship and were more inclined to talk to care partners as a result of the interaction with the seal. Studies are currently underway to investigate how ‘seal time’ might help people with advanced dementia and other neurological challenges. 


Pet therapy

For people living with dementia, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and confusion are common. Pet therapy can help reduce these symptoms and remove some of the anger, helplessness, and frustration experienced by those living with dementia as their condition progresses.

An Australian study evaluated pet therapy at an adult care center for elderly people living with dementia. The results showed that when individuals were involved in activities with the dogs, their feelings of sadness and anxiety decreased, and they experienced more positive emotions and increased their physical activity.

The study also established that one of the biggest benefits of pet therapy is that the increased mental stimulation from interacting with the animals also increases memory recall. Those living with Alzheimers and dementia are also able to sequence temporal events more easily and are automatically more relaxed as oxytocin, prolactin, and serotonin are released.


Barking up the right tree

In other parts of the world a ‘paws up’ is being given for involving animals in helping people manage the challenges, and changes, of growing older. For elderly pet owners, who often live alone or in group facilities, pets can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase social interaction and physical activity and help them learn.

United States-veterinarian Dr Katharine Hillestad says: "A new pet can stimulate someone to read up on an animal or breed, which can be very mentally stimulating and important at that age.”

Psychotherapist Dr Jay Granat believes pets provide other intangibles. "Dogs and other pets live very much in the here and now. They don't worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person. By having an animal with that sense of now, it tends to rub off on people.” 

Pets have been found to reduce depression and lessen loneliness. It has been found that having a pet helps a senior person focus on something other than physical problems and even negative preoccupations about loss or aging.

The benefits for pets coming into a home, or environment, are also substantial. The mutual ‘feel good’ factors are numerous but it’s important to remember that caring for an animal takes time, effort and even money. 

Understanding this is important before going ahead. 

Remembering, however, that if a real pet is out of the question a certain robotic seal may come to the rescue.


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Published: September 2017

Reviewed: September 2022

To be reviewed: September 2025