Why You Should Include a Pet in Your Retirement Plan

By Corinne Kerston

When it comes to your fitness as you age, there’s no lack of advice on how to stay on top of your game. You’re told to exercise — only not too much and not too little. You’re warned away from unhealthy foods — which may or may not include caffeine and red meat. The list goes on: Get a good night’s sleep. Take your vitamins. Go to the doctor once a year. Most of the prescriptions require discipline, and some level of sacrifice.

But what if one of the most potent antidotes you have to the mental and physical effects of aging has nothing to do with eating your spinach or popping a baby aspirin once a day? What if, in fact, this powerful weapon demands almost nothing of you at all?

The Secret to Staying Healthy in Your Golden Years? Have A Pet

We’re talking, of course, about pets. This is no joke. It turns out that pets provide a lot more than much-needed companionship: studies show that four-legged friends can have a direct impact on your health. How? They help lower blood pressure, combat depression and anxiety, reduce pain, and improve fatigue, among other benefits. "We know from studies that interacting with pets can have a direct influence on your health," Dr. Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist, tells

A pet that helps keep you healthy — both mentally and physically — also safeguards your nest egg. Consider that a healthy, 65 year-old couple who retires this year and is on Medicare will still have to pay $245,000 in today’s dollars to cover medical expenses for the next 20 years, according to Fidelity Benefits Consulting. That’s a lot of cash. If a little furry friend can help you avoid some medical costs and hold onto your hard-earned money, why not jump at the chance?

Pets Are Cheaper Than You Think

Thinking of pets as money savers, not guzzlers, might sound crazy. After all, when most people think of adopting an animal, one of the first things that comes to mind is the cost of food and treats, toys, trips to the veterinarian and kennels or "pet sitters".

Let’s take a closer look at the costs of having a furry friend. Do you know how much you’re likely to spend on dog food, dog treats, veterinary care, and flea and tick treatments a year? Between $580 and $875, according to a 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey. That’s nothing when you’re facing, according to Fidelity’s estimates, $11,000 a year in out-of-pocket medical expenses while in retirement. It’s pocket change, too, when you take into account studies showing that people with dogs are eight times more likely to be alive a year after suffering a heart attack than those who don’t have dogs.

Other kinds of pets won’t break the bank, either. A cat, for instance, will set you back about $670 a year. Birds are even cheaper: common breeds will eat up only $200 a year. And fish? Freshwater types need about $63 worth of food every year. None of these estimates include the initial cost of, say, a bird cage or fish tank. But you get the idea.

If you’re still worried about pet ownership eating away your savings, there are simple ways to keep these relatively low costs down. You can, for example:

1. Look for Used Beds, Crates or Tanks

You can try eBay or Craigslist for almost-new pet supplies.

2. Buy Pet Supplies Online

They’ll be cheaper than the corner store. But make sure you some some price-comparison and get free shipping.

3. Look for Coupons and Promos on Pet Supplies

If want the brick-and-mortar experience, your local pet store will likely offer discounts and a frequent-shopper program. Stock up when things are on sale.

4. Buy Generic Pet Food

You don’t have to go for the name brand, pricey heartworm pill.

5. Avoid Pet Insurance

It’s expensive, it doesn’t cover many treatments, and will probably cost you more in the long-run.

6. Keep Pet Food Simple

You can get quality ingredients without paying top dollar. "Fancy Feast" doesn’t have to be any fancier.

7. Buy Pet Food in Bulk

Think Costco or Sam’s Club if you can stock up.

There’s a second popular complaint you’ll often hear about pets: that they require a lot of work. In many cases, that’s exactly the point! Walking the dog gets you moving, which means you’re exercising and the feel-good hormones known as endorphins are flowing. Cats, too, can boost your mood and your heart rate by engaging in a little play. Even the routine of feeding and caring for a pet can lower stress and help ease depression, besides making you get off the couch.

The Right Pet for You

Now for a reality check. Just because pets make for great companions and can boost your health doesn’t mean they’re all created equal. Some types of pets are better than others, depending on your personality, your lifestyle and your physical and emotional needs. A dog, for example, guarantees you unconditional puppy love but it forces you to get out of the house multiple times a day. A cat? Not so much. But where a dog needs daily care and feeding, a cat tends to be more low maintenance. If you’re wondering which pet is best for you, try taking this quiz from Animal Planet.

Above all, remember this: Pets don’t need everything. They need food, a clean place to live and love. All the extra things like special blankets and toys are just that … extras.

If you don’t already have a kitty or puppy to call "friend", you should seriously consider getting one when things start slowing down and you begin transitioning into partial or full retirement. For your health’s sake. And your pocket’s.

Want more help planning your retirement? Try our Retirement Planning Tool and get more expert advice at aboutLife.