Are seniors more satisfied with life if they have pets?

Amongst seniors, whether or not pet ownership is linked to more satisfaction with life seems to depend.

An older woman shakes paw with her spaniel
Photo: Peter Baxter/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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It’s widely assumed that pets add quality to our lives. We hear all the time that they can lower blood pressure, encourage us to get more exercise, and provide comfort if we are sad. There’s some truth to this – but is it always the case? A new study of people aged 65 and over investigates whether pet ownership is linked to higher satisfaction with life.

The study analyzes data from the Canadian Community Health Survey – Healthy Aging conducted by Statistics Canada. The survey collected data from more than 30,000 Canadians aged over 45 in 2008 and 2009. Chelsea Himsworth and Melanie Rock (Universities of BC and Calgary, respectively) looked at the data for those sixty-five or over, to see what effect pet ownership had. In total, 11,973 people had answered the questions that were needed for this study.

The majority of the seniors lived with someone else and most of these were married or co-habiting. Over 90% of them were white, and just over half were female. Over 90% reported having a chronic health condition. The average family income was less than 40,000 dollars a year.

The survey asked if people had a household pet that provided them with companionship, and 27% said yes to this.

A set of questions called the Satisfaction with Life Scale was used. Previous studies with pets have tended to use a measure of quality of life; this is the first time the Satisfaction with Life Scale was used instead. It was chosen because it is a broad measure of satisfaction, that accounts for any medium-term changes that may be taking place without being affected by the mood of the moment. There are five questions in total and the results are added together. Then, people are divided into those who are satisfied and those who are not.

Himsworth and Rock analyzed the data to take account of variables including whether or not seniors lived alone, their marital status, and so on.  Education level and income were not linked to aspects related to pet ownership.

The results show that amongst older people who are married, co-habiting or living with someone else, those who own a pet are less satisfied with life. Amongst those who live alone but are not divorced, pet ownership was not related to life satisfaction. However, for seniors who are divorced and live alone, owning a pet was linked to greater satisfaction.

This is a very interesting set of results because it suggests that pet ownership in seniors should be seen in the context of broader family life. Amongst those who own pets, seniors’ relationships with other people affect the likelihood of them being satisfied with life.

The study is very large in scale and the sample is representative of the nation as a whole. However, because it is a one-off survey it raises many questions. For example, we don’t know about the timing of the acquisition of pets; had people who got divorced acquired a pet after the divorce, for example, as a way of helping them adjust? Amongst married seniors, is the one who acquired the pet also the one who takes responsibility for looking after it? Are some seniors more concerned than others about veterinary bills and what might happen to their pet if they could no longer look after it?

The question about pets was worded to ask about pets that provide companionship. It would be interesting for future research to ask seniors about attachment to their pet, to see what effect the quality of that relationship has.

The results of this study are fascinating, but also hard to interpret. Since sharing our lives with pets can add to our satisfaction with life, further research is needed to investigate the factors that affect this, and the way our relationships with other people also play a role. 

Does your pet get along with other members of your family?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Himsworth, C. G., & Rock, M. (2013). Pet ownership, other domestic relationships, and satisfaction with life among seniors: Results from a Canadian national survey. Anthrozoös, 26(2), 295-305.

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