Study reveals pets help retired owners feel positive about local environment

New research reveals that pets help their retired owners fall asleep more easily and feel better about their neighbourhood.

Older people who own pets fall asleep more easily and feel consistently more positive about their local environment than those who don’t have animals, according to research from Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.

Health and wellbeing expert Gill Mein and Statistician Robert Grant from the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences also found older pet owners take considerably more mild and moderate exercise than those without pets.

The research formed part of the Whitehall II study, which began in 1985 and involved more than 10,000 civil servants working across 20 departments in London.

Gill Mein, a Senior Lecturer in health and wellbeing at Kingston and St George’s Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education was in charge of the retirement element of the research, which examined the links between retirement and health.

She said: “We suspected that owning a pet may have some health benefits, so we decided to investigate this as part of our research. We found that as study participants were getting older, many of the questions in the biennial questionnaire to participants were becoming increasingly negative – abut illness, loneliness, and depression.

“From my interviews, I had noticed many people were very involved with their pets as they came into retirement and felt very positive about them, so we decided to include some questions about pet ownership to give people something positive to talk about and to investigate any links with health variables.”

The study found that 27% of participants owned a pet and out of the 1,929 pet owners, 18% owned cats, 11% had a dog and 4% owned a pet fish.

While all pet owners seemed to benefit from significantly increased mild and moderate exercise, fell asleep more easily and felt consistently more positive about their neighbourhood, owning a dog had significantly increased results in these areas.

Mein highlighted the findings related to pet owners’ sleep and their relationship with their local environment as particularly interesting.

She added: “The fact that older people with pets fall asleep more easily than those without could be linked to the increased mild and moderate exercise we saw in this group, and particularly among dog owners. The other element I found fascinating was that people with pets felt happier about their local environment. If you walk around your neighbourhood, you feel more comfortable about it – it isn’t necessarily as hostile as it could be if you mainly travel in a car or use public transport as you know it a bit better, it’s more familiar.”