EU conference highlights benefit of pets for healthy ageing


What do pets have to do with healthy active ageing, enabling older people to enjoy a good quality of life, you might ask? A whole lot according to the researchers, practitioners, politicians, NGOs and industry gathered at the Pets are good for EU conference, hosted by Mars, Incorporated and Forum Europe in Brussels, Belgium, on 4 May 2017. In fact, research shows that pets can be part of the solution to challenges raised by population ageing, and even lead to healthcare cost savings.

The European population is getting older and statistical data predicts there will be more old than young people by 2050. “Getting older is the biggest achievement of humankind”, noted Heinz K. Becker, Member of the European Parliament, but it is putting a strain on healthcare and social systems.

How can pets help to solve these challenges? Every pet owner knows how much fun and affection companion animals can bring, but the positive health benefits are also backed up by science. Research from Mars’ WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition and other academic studies show that pets help owners live longer, healthier lives: A dog, for example, encourages physical activity, thus improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of immobility. “In fact, older age dog owners are twice more likely to maintain their mobility over time than non-owners”, Dr. Sandra McCune, Scientific Leader for Human-Animal Interaction at the WALTHAM Centre explained.

Playing_with_dog Pets come with some powerful emotional and social benefits for healthy active ageing, too. They are a common ground to spark a conversation, and help to build and strengthen friendships and relationships. Moreover, pets bring structure to the day and provide loyal companionship, reducing loneliness and depression, particularly after bereavement. Caring for or interacting with a pet can reduce stress and anxiety. Dementia patients, for example, see their agitation levels reduced when they pet a dog, and fish aquariums in cafeterias help them focus on their meal.

As a result, older people require less support from the healthcare and social system. “According to a study from University of Lincoln, it has been estimated to be £2.45 billion per year in the United Kingdom”, Myriam Cohen, Regional President of Mars Petcare Europe highlighted. In addition, pet ownership contributes to the economy, through pet food production and sale, animal health and veterinary services.

Panellists and attendees discussed how to overcome challenges to pet ownership in older life, for example those of costs, concerns of caregivers or pets not being allowed in many rental or retirement homes. They agreed on the need for a concerted and consistent effort, for which Mr. Becker promptly offered his support, to raise awareness among politicians, institutions, but also health and veterinary professionals, caregivers and housing owners. Success will depend equally on the European institutions and EU member states to develop guidelines and policies, and practitioners to include pet ownership as part of their caregiving. Mars, through its WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition and partnerships with the National Institutes of Health and the Gerontological Society of America, as well as the attending academics will support the scientific evidence base.

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