Doc's note: Today's essay was chosen by Retirement Millionaire Daily team member Chris Gaarde...
If there's one thing I'm known for around the office, it's my two cats, Scout and Bea. I'm the type of pet owner that shares photos of my cats like new parents share baby photos. My cats are a big part of my life, and they brighten even my gloomiest days.
When Retirement Millionaire Daily researcher Amanda Cuocci shared her experience on the health benefits of owning pets, I was excited, to say the least. I hope you enjoy Amanda's essay as much as I do, and if you love animals but aren't able to own one, consider volunteering at your local animal shelter or rescue organization. You'll get the same health benefits as owning a pet, and you'll have a positive impact on the life of the animal.
For years, I (Amanda) have researched and helped write about the importance of stress relief in Retirement Millionaire and Retirement Millionaire Daily. Too much stress takes a toll on your sleep, your appetite, your heart, everything.
But I'm terrible at following my own advice.
Too often, I let stress get the best of me. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping, eat too much junk food, and occasionally have stress-induced heart palpitations.
However, there is one thing I've done that helped my stress immensely. It might seem unconventional, but it's something you can try as well... I got a pet.
Two years ago, my husband and I found a dog we loved at a local rescue group. That May, a giant, drool-producing, beast of a dog named Francesco ("Cesco") joined our home. It was the best decision we ever made.
In the following months, I felt my stress start to lower. My husband and I exercised more by taking him for walks. The sunshine and movement helped fight off the stress of the day. We even made friends with some of our neighbors who hadn't talked to us before, simply because we were out and about with Cesco.
What's more, both of us struggle with periods of depression. But having a pet that needed us to stay on a routine helped us keep going. It's an example of the behavioral activation we've previously written about.
Now when my husband works nights, I no longer feel lonely and unmotivated. I finally understand why so many folks adopt a pet when they find themselves with an empty nest.
And even though it's a big responsibility and certainly comes with challenges, having a dog has helped me be more social, more active, and less overwhelmed by stress and anxiety.
And you know what... I'm not alone in finding that comfort in my pup.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother took comfort in owning a dog. I saw how it kept her active with daily walks and helped with her grief and loneliness. Some of my older friends finally have an empty nest and adopted a dog to keep them company. And my aunt adopted two kittens who helped her cope with the loss of her husband.
Although dogs are the most popular pet in the country, cats provide the same comfort and companionship. Birds and fish bring stress relief, too. In fact, one of the nicest nursing homes I've visited had a beautiful songbird display that the residents loved. Watching and caring for the birds helped the residents with the stress and anxiety that comes with aging.
Even just watching fish in a fish tank lowers blood pressure and stress.
Interacting with animals, particularly dogs and cats, stimulates neurotransmitters that make us feel happy and relaxed. That's because petting a dog or a cat increases your levels of oxytocin. This hormone brings a lot of great health benefits, from pain reduction to lower blood pressure. We wrote an entire issue about oxytocin, which you can read here.
Staying active, social, and stress-free is crucial for not only our physical health, but for our mental health. But as we age, it gets harder to keep up with these things. We've written before about the importance of movement, even if it's a simple walk every day. And we've talked about staying social and keeping your mind sharp to preserve your memory.
Pets are a great way to help with all of these things and are worth considering. If a dog or a cat is too much work, or if you're allergic, try a fish, bird, or other animal.
Now, you may be wondering... what if I can't (or don't want to) have a pet?
One consideration for dogs and cats is safety from falls. Despite the joy she found in owning a dog, my grandmother took a bad fall down her stairs a few years ago. She was lucky to survive, but we had to make the difficult choice to find a new home for her constantly underfoot terrier.
But that doesn't stop her from greeting her neighbors' dogs or from supporting the local dog shelters.
If you're in a similar situation, consider volunteering. There are hundreds of shelters and rescue groups looking for help. Even if you can't keep a pet in your home, working with these organizations is a good way to interact with and help animals in need.
And you still get the benefits without ownership... One study from Cornwall College in the U.K. demonstrated that both cat owners and those who volunteered at a shelter with cats saw drops in heart rate and blood pressure after 10 just minutes of interaction (owners had slightly larger drops).
You can also ask local senior centers if they have therapy pets that come in for visits. If you move to an assisted-living or nursing-care facility, many now have therapy pets scheduled to drop in. During the time I worked at a nursing home, we had folks bring in therapy dogs to visit the residents. The pups were great stress relievers for the staff as well.
This year's Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association shows that, as a nation, our stress is much higher than in the past. That's why taking steps to control your stress is so important. Try some of these tips and let us know about your experiences with pets. And share photos of your pets on our Facebook page right here.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Amanda Cuocci and Dr. David Eifrig
December 20, 2017