Letter from CAIRC
December 2003 Vol.7 No.3

Affection for a Pet can Assist in Health Maintenance for the Elderly
~A summary of CAIRC-sponsored research results~

The Companion Animal Information and Research Center (CAIRC) supports research into the ways in which caring for pets contributes to the health of seniors. The following report, titled “Relationship between Keeping a Companion Animal and IADL (Instrumental Activities of Daily Living) among Elderly People Living at Home,” presents the results of a research project carried out by a team headed by Dr. Tomoko Saito, a visiting researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

In 1999, Dr. Saito published the results of a study of elderly residents of Satomi Village, Ibaraki Prefecture, noting that “among the elderly, a larger percentage of pet owners than non-pet owners have relatively healthy lifestyles.” The subjects of the original study were surveyed four years later once again in a study revealing that “their IADL (Instrumental Activities for Daily Living) capabilities improved or were maintained in proportion to the depth of interaction with and fondness for companion animals.

With an average life expectancy of 81.4 years (according to a 2001 World Health Organization study), Japan leads the world in longevity. But long life expectancy does not necessarily equate with a healthy elderly population. According to the WHO’s definition, health is more than simply the absence of illness or disability. It means being well in terms of both body and mind as well as social relations. It is not so easy to simply boast of Japan’s relatively high life expectancy rates when one notes that 1.2 million elderly Japanese are bedridden, 0.14 million suffer from dementia, and 1.32 million have disabilities, for a total of 2.66 million requiring long-term care (according to a 2000 study by Nissay’s NLI Research Institute).

The 2000 census counted 22 million Japanese, or 17.4% of the population, aged 65 or older, and this figure is forecast to grow in the future. In 2014, the elderly proportion of the population is expected to rise to 25%, or 1 person in 4, and to 32%, or 1 in 2.8, by 2050 (according to a study by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research). How will we ensure health and an appropriate quality of life (QOL) for the elderly in the future? Seeking out ways to approach the issue is crucial not only for the elderly themselves, but for their families and acquaintances as well as society as a whole.

In this perspective, much attention is being paid to the role that pets play in the health of the elderly in developed nations such as the United States and the countries of Europe, which also face the prospect of aging societies. Research is being pursued on a wide range of phenomena such as correlations between pet ownership and days spent in hospital, and the effects pets have on the success of rehabilitation programs. As a result, it is becoming clearer that pets contribute to important components of a healthy lifestyle, including a well-organized daily routine, healthy social relations, a strong will to live, and relief from anxiety.

In Japan, the published research in this field is still somewhat sparse, which makes Dr. Saito’s work all the more a pioneering effort. Particularly unique is the fact that it is the first study ever that uses the IADL index as a criterion for measuring the relationship between pet ownership and the health of the elderly.

Whereas the ADL (Activities of Daily Living) index is a set of activities fundamental to daily life, such as ambulatory movement, eating, and using the toilet, IADL consists of a range of instrumental activities that enable a person to live an independent life. Using the telephone, necessary household chores, and management of one’s own bank and pension accounts are typical examples of IADL. Diversifying one’s range of social interactions, including recreation and, in a broad sense, work is linked to maintaining IADL capabilities. Conversely, early death rates are relatively high among those with IADL disabilities.

“Research published in Europe and the United States has indicated that interaction with animals can relieve stress and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” notes Dr. Saito. “Research also shows that keeping companion animals contributes to prevention of the deterioration in mental function that results from social isolation. We undertook this study of the relationship between IADL and raising pets in order to produce material that we hope will be useful in health maintenance and community health promotion in the aging society of the 21st century. The results of the study suggest that affection for and interaction with companion animals plays a major role in health maintenance for the elderly.

Relationship between Keeping a Companion Animal and IADL (Instrumental Activities of Daily Living) of Elderly People Living at Home:
A Longitudinal Study in Satomi Village, Ibaraki Prefecture

Tomoko Saito, Visiting Researcher
Takanori Shibata, Senior Research Scientist
Intelligent Interface Research Group
Intelligent Systems Institute
National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology

Overview of Findings:
Satomi Village was chosen for this study because 30.0% of the population consists of residents aged 65 and over. Many of the elderly live there alone. Satomi thus serves as an appropriate model of the aging society in the future. There are many problems such as growing burdens of health, medical, and social welfare services.

For their March 1999 study, Dr. Saito’s team randomly selected 400 out of the 1,345 people aged 65 or older in Satomi Village. The subjects were sent questionnaires with questions on the seven IADL criteria (ability to use the telephone, take public transportation or drive to remote locations, do necessary shopping, prepare meals, do necessary household chores, self-administer medication, and manage one’s own pension and bank accounts) as well as questions regarding companion animals (including current pet ownership history, type of animal, length of relationship with animal, and past pet ownership). The 339 valid responses were then used as the basis for a logistic regression analysis (a method of explaining the probability that a phenomenon will occur given multiple specified variables).

The results clearly indicated that there were fewer cases of IADL disabilities among subjects who had experienced caring for pets compared to subjects who lacked pets. This survey alone, however, did not produce results sufficient enough to determine whether caring for pets maintains IADL capabilities at high levels or whether people who already have good IADL capabilities are more likely to own pets.

In May 2003, the subjects of the initial study were revisited with a follow-up survey focusing on changes in IADL capabilities over the intervening four years. This time, the survey items also included questions on the time spent interacting with pets and the levels of affection for the animals.

Of the 225 subjects who gave valid responses, 96 were still caring for dogs and/or cats, while 53 had no experience with pets. Of all subjects whose IADL capabilities had been maintained or improved over the previous four years, 77% had no pet ownership experience, while 90% owned companion animals and reported regular feeding and petting. In addition, among the pet owners, nearly half of those who declined to select responses such as “I like my pet,” “My pet brings happiness to my life,” and “I often speak to my pet” had experienced a decline in IADL proficiency. Thus, trends in IADL capability were very clearly divided between pet owners who showed affection for their companion animals and those who did not.

“We learned that the significant factor in maintaining or improving IADL is not simply pet ownership, but continuous interaction and emotional communication with a companion animal that the person feels affection for,” said Dr. Saito.

Relevant findings from research on pets and the elderly conducted in Europe and the United States:
While elderly subjects without pets spent an average of 13 days hospitalized in one year and received medical services 37 times, elderly pet owners were hospitalized an average of 8 days and received medical services 30 times. (Rainer, University of British Columbia, Canada, 1988.)
In a study of approximately 1,000 recipients of government medical coverage, pet owners were troubled less often by loneliness, and had fewer hospital visits: “Caring for pets provided a sense of camaraderie, relief from anxiety and enjoyment, as well as opportunities for play and relaxation. ... Interaction with animals had the effect of relieving stress.” (Siegel, School of Public Health, University of California Los Angeles)
In a half-year study, 48 patients with high blood pressure were divided into two groups : one group without pets that was given medication only, and another group that was given medication and cared for pets. Blood pressure levels were monitored for six months. Both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels of the subjects with pets decreased. Similar results were observed for average pulse rates. (Allen, New York State University, 2001)
A special pet-assisted program was carried out for seven elderly residents at a long-term care facility who had refused to participate in a rehabilitation regimen. Movement and range of motion in partially paralyzed limbs increased, while rigid muscles relaxed. (Buttram, Associazione Italiana Uso Cani da Assistenza [AIUCA], 2002)