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Why Pets Make Great Caregiving Companions

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Few life pleasures are as comforting as a dog or cat peacefully napping by your side. Pets can alleviate loneliness, lower blood pressure and stave off depression.

Having a cat, dog or other small pet takes some effort. Carrying out tasks like grooming, cleaning or walking an animal can give people a sense of purpose—not to mention a reason to get out of the house for some low-impact exercise and some social interaction. Research from the University of Victoria in British Columbia revealed that people with dogs tended to be more physically active than those without.

And the benefits extend beyond just the physical. Ever had warm, fuzzy feelings while looking into the eyes of a cuddly creature? Or possibly a peaceful feeling watching fish swim in an aquarium? You're not alone.

A study by scientists at Purdue University showed that simply placing aquariums in the rooms of individuals with Alzheimer's disease was linked to better eating and nutritional habits, helping subjects maintain a healthy body weight and even reducing health care costs due to less need for supplements.

It's long been recognized that lack of companionship can have a number of negative effects on mental health, with depression, anxiety and potentially even dementia among them. For some individuals, especially those with memory problems, it can sometimes be easier to connect with animals than humans, making pets ideal friends for some older people.

Studies show that older folks make meaningful bonds with animals, talking to them and petting them when in need of an emotional lift. This kind of boost can have a significant impact. Research suggests that pet owners derive lowered blood pressure and stress levels. In fact, one study from a team of scientists at State University of New York in Buffalo suggests that it's not just the elderly who see benefits from these animals, but their caregivers as well.

But some elderly individuals who could benefit the most may find it too difficult to care for cats, dogs or even birds on a live-in basis. If you're a professional caregiver or are taking care of a loved one, taking your pet with you on caregiving visits may be a good way for your charge to gain the therapeutic benefits of having a pet without sacrificing the safety and well-being of either the person or the pet.

First, make sure your pet will behave appropriately if you take it visiting. Some pets may become skittish, aggressive or overly excited. Dogs may benefit from companion training before you take them on caregiver visits. You don't want a frisky pet to cause an accident or upset the person you're caring for.

If you don't have a pet, consider contacting a nonprofit group such as PetFriends.org and arrange a visit.