Throughout most of their long lives, my grandparents had a series of dogs.
My own memories of these canine companions are not universally positive if I’m honest: I recall being unfairly chastised for “winding up the dog” after it snapped at me on a number of occasions, but the fact that they empathised with the furry individual over their grandchild reflects the strength of the bond between them.
When they reached their late 70s, dog No. 6 (I think) died, and they decided not to get another. Their reasoning was that if they did so, the dog might well outlive them, and that that would be cruel.
I didn’t think much of it at the time but looking back, this was the start of their decline.
It could be coincidence of course, but I do wonder whether their decision to live without another ever-present and unjudging companion was directly linked to their deterioration.
On a practical level, they lost their motivation to go to the local park, something they had done religiously every morning to give their dog exercise.
This meant they were not as physically active, and inactivity undoubtedly hastens the decline experienced later in life. They also missed the social contact that comes about from walking the dog.
No more chit-chat in the park and catching up on peoples’ news. Given what we know about the dangers of social isolation and loneliness – the psychological consequences as well as the increase in bodily inflammation – this would not have helped their mental or physical health.
Then there is a harder-to-measure but equally important impact on purpose. Having a role in life – even if it is just to be a caretaker for a pet – has a profound influence on our health and wellbeing. Purpose, in fact, is one of the predictors of how long we live and caring for someone (or something) may be associated with a longer lifespan for many.
At a more professional level, I have seen both the benefits of having a pet around the place, and the terrible consequences of losing a pet.
I have looked after a man who became deeply depressed after losing his dog, his one and only companion for many years. The poor gentleman only recovered after receiving intensive treatment.
I have also seen how the eyes of those in nursing home care light up when a dog is brought into the facility, or a cat chooses to grace them with its presence.
Research backs up the value of such “pet therapy” including for those with dementia.
For many, it brings back positive memories from years before, and we know that being around domestic animals increases our feel-good hormones – endorphins – as well as oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel connected.
Cortisol levels also drop, and high levels of this hormone are associated with stress and all its negative consequences.
The parasympathetic nervous system is activated and with this comes feelings of relaxation and contentment. There is also some evidence – though not conclusive proof – that pet therapy can improve cognitive function in some.
Having a pet is, of course, not all plain sailing. To be a good and caring owner requires commitment and responsibility taking (and sometimes can be expensive), but the benefits can be myriad.
Just one thing to remember though – if your grandchild complains that your dog has “snapped” at them, then it might be the dog’s temper at fault rather than your grandchild’s playful exuberance.
Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online. Visit yourbraininmind.com or