Nova Scotia·Health Hacks

Paging Dr. Fluffy — here's how a pet can help keep you healthy

Pet ownership comes with a range of benefits at all stages of life, from decreased frequency of allergies to higher levels of physical activity and improved mental health.

A four-legged companion can force you to have a healthy routine

Pets can be a big health benefit for people who are older. (Boryana Manzurova/Shutterstock)

This is part of a series from CBC's Information Morning where Halifax health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton discusses her "health hacks" — ways to make your experience with the health-care system better.

When you seek treatment at a doctor's office or hospital, a caring health-care practitioner can make all the difference. 

But when it comes to maintaining wellbeing outside the health system, sometimes the best help comes on four legs. Pet ownership has health benefits across a person's lifespan, according to health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton

"If you think about it, if you have a pet in your life you are forced into a healthy routine," said Hampton.

She points to benefits ranging from more regular eating patterns and consistent physical activity to improved social connections.

Mary Jane Hampton is a health-care consultant in Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

While some might be leery of pet ownership because they fear animals exacerbate allergies in children, Hampton said research suggests pets can have the opposite effect. 

"When you have young children there is actually evidence that having pets in the home will increase their immune system," she said. "They'll be healthier kids and healthier adults generally speaking."

Pet ownership is also associated with decreased levels of anxiety and lower blood pressure. As people get older, pets can have an even greater benefit.

A brochure for health-care practitioners encouraging them to speak to their patients about their pets. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"I would argue that probably one of the best things that a senior citizen could do to invest in their health is to welcome a pet into their life, because it will probably mean that they live longer and they live healthier," said Hampton.

Research suggests pet ownership can have benefits for seniors' physical and mental wellbeing. A study of retired civil servants in the U.K. found that seniors with pets reported higher levels of exercise, better luck falling asleep and a greater sense of safety in their neighborhood.

Given the potential benefits of having a pet, Hampton said it's unfortunate that some people might rule out a four-legged companion in their golden years. 

"Really, the time that they may actually have the greatest benefit from the companionship of a pet, they decide not to because they're afraid that the pet will outlive them."

While planning for the care of a pet as you age is important, Hampton said, there are ways to ensure they're looked after, including through non-profits like Elderdog. The Canada-wide organization assists seniors with tasks like dog walking, transporting pets and pet supplies, and respite care for pets whose owners end up in hospital.

"It takes that stress away from taking the plunge into making the commitment to an animal."

For any senior considering taking that plunge, Hampton recommends selecting a pet that suits their lifestyle. 

"Choose a pet that you will be happy living with for years and years," she said. "Because statistically speaking, when you make the choice to have a pet in your life you'll live a longer time and it will be a happier one."

With files from Information Morning