For the love of dogs and cats

Posted on January 27, 2017 by Eleanor McKenzie
Companion pets

I don’t have a pet at the moment, but in the past I have been a cat owner. I am contemplating adopting a rescue dog thanks to my wonderful experience with looking after owners’ dogs in my home while they go on holiday. It’s rather like being a grandmother, because I can hand them back after however many days or weeks I have them for, and I must confess that, just like grandkids, the doggies get a bit spoilt as well.

Having a companion dog or cat is beneficial for the over 50s, especially if you live on your own, because an animal doesn’t just provide company and affection, pet ownership also provides a structure to the day and gives our lives an added purpose. A dog has to be walked, which means getting outdoors, seeing people on the walk and getting some exercise. A cat doesn’t provide the same level of social activity, but a feline friend is excellent company for anyone who has limited mobility and would find dog ownership too much of a challenge.

The health benefits of pet ownership

There’s a wealth of studies showing that pet ownership can help people manage high blood pressure and cholesterol while lowering stress levels thanks to the release of oxytocin brought on by cuddling or stroking a four-legged companion.

A study by researchers the University of Missouri found that older pet owners often benefit greatly from their relationships with their dogs. The regular exercise gained from dog walking was associated with a lower body mass index, fewer trips to the doctors as well an increase in social interaction. There are also plenty of mental health benefits as well, according to Ingrid Collins, a consultant psychologist at the London Medical Centre, “A pet is better than Prozac. Animals have a completely different agenda to humans, and bring things back to basics. They want comfort, feeding and love. In return, they give huge affection.”

Choosing the right type of dog

Choosing the right dog is essential, particularly for frailer seniors who would find a large, energetic and muscular dog more of a health hazard than a help. Smaller dogs are better suited to the golden years and I’ve selected some “companion breeds” that fit the bill:

Yorkshire Terrier

Beloved by many, the Yorkshire terrier is a bundle of entertainment that doesn’t require hours of exercise, although they love to play and bounce around, they are perfectly suited to a compact living space. You will need to groom it regularly if you keep the coat long, but a short “puppy cut” looks very cute and this dog doesn’t shed much hair, which is something important to consider.  The Yorkshire terrier is also very loyal and a great little guard dog.

Shih Tzu

A comic character with an adorable face, especially when the coat is kept short, this breed loves to cuddle up on the sofa with you. They are alert, friendly and only need a minimal amount of exercise.


I have to confess my undying love for the pug. These loveable clowns will have you crying with laughter on the darkest days and they always know when you need a bit of a lift. On the downside, their snorting is pretty noisy, they will do their best to avoid taking orders, are always looking for food and shed lots of hair. But, they will bring you a very special kind of joy.


This breed has always been popular and it is one of the most intelligent canines, which makes them easy to train and poodles are obedient dogs. By contrast with the pug, the poodle barely sheds any hair and is an excellent choice if you have allergies. They do need more exercise than a Shih Tzu or pug, but they are well-behaved outdoors compared with some breeds that like to pull on the lead. A toy or miniature poodle is ideal for any size of home.

Adopt or Buy?

Having been engrossed by Paul O’Grady’s wonderful series about Battersea Home for Dogs and Cats, and knowing people who work with rescue animals, I would encourage everyone to think seriously about getting a rescue dog or cat. If you are going to buy a pedigree pet, make sure it is from a reputable breeder and not from a pet shop where they often source their animals from puppy mills. These mills often care nothing for animals and only about the profit and are a major cause of genetic defects and poor health in many of the breeds that sell for a high price.

Some people are nervous about rescue animals and fear that their past bad treatment may have turned them into difficult-to-handle pets. Here are some tips for adopting a rescue animal:

  • Talk to the people at the rescue centre about the animal, the best routine and preferred food, and spend time with it at the centre
  • Be patient – a rescue dog or cat may need more time to adjust to your home. Keep your environment as calm as possible until they have settled and let them explore the home on their own
  • Limit their exposure to excitement or too much stimulation at the beginning as this can trigger a stress response. Introduce them to your friends and to new places slowly
  • Be consistent with your rules about what they are allowed to do; this helps them to feel safer and they are less like to act up
  • Don’t rush training or any attempt to change a bad habit that is already established. Get help from a professional trainer if needed and read up on the breed – even mongrels have breed characteristics
  • Always ask for help if you need it from the rescue shelter or another owner who is experienced with rescue pets.

And, if you are thinking of giving an elderly relative a companion pet for Christmas, please talk to them first rather than arrive with a surprise, because as we have been repeatedly told, “a pet isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life.”

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.