Older people who own pets fall asleep more easily and feel consistently more positive about their local environment than those who don't have animals, according to new research from Kingston University and St George's, University of London.

Health and wellbeing expert Gill Mein conducted the research along with statistician Robert Grant. They found older pet owners take considerably more mild and moderate exercise than those without pets.

Their investigation formed part of the Whitehall II study, which began in 1985 and involved more than 10,000 civil servants working across 20 departments in London. Ms. Mein was in charge of the retirement element of the study, which examined the links between retirement and health.

Pets and some health benefits

"We suspected that owning a pet may have some health benefits, so we decided to investigate this as part of our research," Ms. Mein, senior lecturer in health and wellbeing at Kingston and St George's Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education, said.

"We found that as study participants were getting older, many of the questions in the biennial questionnaire were becoming increasingly negative – about illness, loneliness, depression, "Ms. Mein explained.

"From my interviews, I had noticed many people were involved with their pets as they came into retirement and felt very positive about them, so we decided to include some questions about pet ownership to give people something positive to talk about and to investigate any links with health variables, "Ms. Mein explained.

The study found that two in every seven people (27% of participants) owned a pet. Of the 1,929 pet owners, 18% owned cats, 11% owned dogs and 4% owned fish. The remainder kept birds, rabbits, tortoises, horses, guinea pigs, chickens, and hamsters

While all pet owners seemed to benefit from significantly increased mild and moderate exercise, fell asleep more easily and felt consistently more positive about their neighborhood, owning a dog had increased considerably results in these areas. Mein highlighted the findings related to pet owners ' sleep and their relationship with their local environment as particularly interesting.

"The fact that older people with pets fell asleep could easily be linked to the increased mild and moderate exercise in this group, and particularly among dog owners," Ms. Mein said.

"I interviewed a lady who had a parrot every time I asked her something, the parrot repeated it, so you can hear anything she says on the recording," Ms. Mein said.

The crucial owners placed on their pets was emphasized for MsMein during one interview with a male study participant. When asked what had happened in the five years since she last spoke to him, he had told her his dog had died but failed to mention that he had had two new grandchildren.