For the Love of Animals

Publish Date:

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 4:24 pm EDT


News Organization:

The New York Times

Source URL:

Linda and Gary Childs go almost everywhere with their “little girl.”

The retirees, from West Boylston, Mass., love to parade 3-year-old Chino down busy streets in her stroller. They take her to restaurants dressed in her fur-lined vest or polo hoodie where “she sits in her own chair, very polite.”

But their favorite place may be the seashore, where Chino wears sunglasses and one of her four beach dresses while lounging in a chair embroidered with her name.

“Chino gives us so many laughs and so much love,” Ms. Childs, a 67-year-old retired schoolteacher, said of the 12-pound Chihuahua-pug mix. “She just makes everything better.”

The Childs are unusual in some respects. Retirement remains a time when many Americans move away from things they have to paint, feed or nurture. Only 41 percent of Americans 65 and older live in households with pets, compared with 68 percent of those 45 to 54 and 76 percent of 18- to 24-year olds, according to a 2014 survey by Mintel, a market research agency.

The golden years may have less bark, bite and meow, but in the last decade new scientific studies, evolving attitudes about pets and changing family structures have reshaped the relationship between retirees and animals, even if much of the new research is not universally accepted.

Erika Ribaudo, a senior adviser at A Place for Mom, which helps about 200,000 families a year find living arrangements for retirees, noted a growing demand for pets by retirees and the willingness of senior living communities to accept them. “As recently as 2005 there were very few communities that accepted pets,” Ms. Ribaudo said. “Now, probably 40 percent of them are pet friendly, and that number is growing. Science tells us that pets make people feel so much better, and more clients just don’t want to give up their beloved family member. Today, they don’t have to.”

From 2010 to 2015, pet ownership in the United States increased about 3 percent; 65 percent of households own a pet, usually a dog or cat. During that same time, according to the American Pet Products Association, spending on pet items increased about 25 percent, to what is expected to be $60.5 billion this year.

For retirees, smaller is better. Younger pet owners are more likely to own dogs than cats — by a roughly 60-40 split, Mintel found. This gap begins to narrow with age, so that the 65 and older crowd is slightly more likely to own cats than dogs.

There are no definitive statistics on the breeds of dogs favored by various age groups, but the American Kennel Club suggests that less active retirees — as well as those living in apartments or who travel a lot — consider smaller breeds like Chihuahuas or Dachshunds. It is easier to trip over smaller dogs, but it is harder for them to knock down their owners.

As more Americans live alone and families have fewer children, “their attachment to pets is deepening,” said Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University and author of “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.” “They think of them as people, and they are making greater emotional and financial investments in their pets.”

Glenn A. White, an 87-year-old retired businessman of Waltham Crossings, Mass., said he “spends a lot of time talking to my 8-year-old Havanese, Cody.

“Of course,” Mr. White added, “he talks back. I even sing to him” — though Cody has yet to respond with his own version of “Hound Dog.”

Just as helicopter parents try to provide their children with every advantage, pet owners primp and pamper their cosseted companions. Pet shops become superstores with designer clothes and jewelry. High-end pet foods — including organic, holistic, grain-free, non-G.M.O. offerings rich with meat, poultry and fish — account for more than 40 percent of sales. And veterinarians report a rise in pet obesity.

Retiree pet owners seem especially devoted as they buck the tendency to give up pets. “As boomers become empty nesters, they look for other things to nurture,” said Richard Rosso, a certified financial planner in Houston. “I’ve been in this business for 26 years, and during the last seven to 10 years I have noticed that the retirement dream for many clients is still drinking a piña colada on the beach, but now they see a Lab next to them.”

Since the average American pet owner spends more than $1,600 per year on a dog and $1,100 on a cat, Mr. Rosso said, he now includes pet budget lines in his financial plans for retirees.

Retirees and other pet owners have become more demanding in recent years, expecting businesses that cater to them to also serve their pets. The changing landscape of pet ownership is apparent at R.V. parks and campgrounds. “They have always accommodated pets, but in the last five years or so they have started investing capital in dog parks, agility courses, sticks and tubes and doggy washing stations,” said Debbie Sipe, executive director of the California Association of R.V. Parks and Campgrounds. “Just having a dog run is no longer enough.”

Kampgrounds of America, which has over 485 locations in the United States and Canada, is expanding such pet-friendly features through its Kamp K-9 program, according to Mike Gast, vice president of communications. He said that about 55 percent of its campers — the vast majority of whom travel by R.V. — own pets.

“All of our facilities are pet–friendly, and about half of them now have Kamp K-9s, which includes off-leash areas, agility courses,” Mr. Gast said. “We’ve added 50 of them in just the last year.”

The changing role of pets and retirement can be seen at Brighton Gardens of Raleigh, an assisted-living and memory care community in Raleigh, N.C., that could almost be mistaken for a menagerie. A pair of love birds greets visitors at the door. A well-fed Basset mix named Mr. Copper — the community pet known as the king of the table scraps — lounges on the dining room floor amid residents enjoying an afternoon cocktail. A volunteer pet therapist has a Shetland sheepdog in her lap as a smiling resident gently strokes it under the ear, while dogs and cats scamper down the hallways with their owners.

“Every one of our 302 communities has at least one community pet,” said Rita Altman, senior vice president of memory care and program services for Sunrise Senior Living, which operates Brighton Gardens communities throughout the country. “It is hard to measure all the benefits they bring — the happiness, the sense of purpose, the ability to nurture something — but we know they make a meaningful difference.”

Blair Patterson, a 79-year-old Brighton Gardens resident who uses a wheelchair because of arthritis, said his 9-year-old Shih Tzu is a constant source of joy. “She is so good for my ego,” Mr. Patterson, a retired investment broker, said. “She thinks my wife and I are the most. Sometimes I think, ‘Dear God, please help me be the man my dog thinks I am.’ ”

The growing belief that pets are not just good, but good for you, may make ownership more appealing to retirees. Some studies find that pet ownership can help reduce blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol while increasing one-year survival rates after a heart attack, according to Alan Beck, a researcher who is the director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. Other studies show that pets reduce loneliness and stress, promote interaction between people and encourage exercise.

“It is clear that animals are good for your health” Mr. Beck said, while cautioning that the field is still relatively young, with few comprehensive studies to draw from. Although people have owned pets for tens of thousands of years, scientists only began investigating the health implications of the human-animal bond during the 1970s. “Until then most research focused on the harm animals might pose through bites or spreading disease,” he said.

Mr. Herzog, the Western Carolina University professor, is less convinced that pets provide specific, widespread health benefits. He said studies showing specific benefits received wide attention in the media, whose addiction to “feel-good stories” about pets was matched only by their penchant for reports of astounding “medical breakthroughs.” These studies, he said, are also trumpeted by the pet industry.

“We don’t hear much about the compelling research finding that pets do not improve our health, reduce our loneliness or make us happier,” Mr. Herzog said. “Or about the 85,000 or so people a year, many of them older, who go to emergency rooms with broken bones each year because of their pets. Pets may be good for us, but, right now, I think it is more of a hypothesis than a proven fact.”

Such debates are an afterthought to retirees like Paul and Jackie Caldwell, whose 10-year-old Pomeranian, Foxy, is their constant companion as they travel in an R.V. between their homes in Florida and Pennsylvania. “I can’t imagine life without her,” said Ms. Caldwell, 67.

But sometimes Ms. Caldwell does need a break. Fortunately, a neighbor in Florida is happy to babysit. “Foxy loves her Aunt BeaBea so much,” she said. “During the summer, when she is back home in New Brunswick, Canada, we Skype her once a month, and Foxy is so excited to see her.”

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