I know from personal experience as the owner of four rescue dogs that having a pet is a great joy.

What I didn't realize is that it is also good for my health.

Studies show that pet owners have greater self-esteem, are more physically fit, tend to be less lonely, more conscientious, more extraverted, less fearful and less preoccupied than non-owners.

This is particularly important for senior citizens, who consider their pets valuable companions.

One organization that helps seniors and their pets is the Home Instead Senior Care network (www.homeinstead.com).

This organization not only provides non-medical care to seniors in their homes, it also helps them care for their pets. Many seniors are reluctant to enter an assisted living center or skilled nursing facility because very often these alternatives do not permit them to have pets.

It becomes even more important to them to stay in their own homes.

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While grocery shopping with a senior, a Home Instead CAREGiverSM can help a senior purchase pet food or supplies.

Many CAREGivers, too, make a senior's pet a part of the fun on outings such as walks or trips to the park.

Not only will you have peace of mind knowing that the senior in your life is well cared for, his beloved pet will also be provided for as well.

"Helping seniors with their pets is a valuable service our CAREGivers provide, but one that many people don't know about," said Jeff Huber, president and chief operating officer of the Home Instead Senior Care network.

"Our CAREGivers fulfill a variety of functions for seniors who have pets, from exercising the animals to helping with their nutritional and medical needs to comforting seniors when their pets die."

If you're thinking about giving a senior a pet as a gift, consider the following advice from The Humane Society of the United States and the Home Instead Senior Care network:

1. Don't surprise seniors with a new pet.

The thought of a pet may be overwhelming to an older adult who may not be ready for the job that owning a pet entails.

2. Talk with them about the pet that would best suit their lifestyle.

3. Identify the time that would be required to care for the pet and whether the senior has the ability and the economic resources to care for the animal.

4. Seek outside resources. Depending on the type of pet you decide on, visit your local animal shelter. They can discuss with you and your senior loved ones the care needs of the type of pet you're considering.

For more information on pet adoption, visit www.humanesociety.org/adopt.

5. When looking for a dog or cat, select a more mature animal that is likely to be calmer as well as house trained.

6. Make sure that the animal is spayed or neutered.

7. Consider the size of the pet. If the senior lives in a care community, some have regulations on the weight of a dog or cat.

8. Develop a plan for what will happen to the pet if the senior becomes ill or dies.

Contact petsinwills@husus.org for a free planning kit.

9. Make friends with your local humane society.

Most offer free classes on pet ownership and low-cost medical care.

Also, locate a veterinarian that can help properly care for the pet.

10. Seek support if needed to care for the pet.

Call Home Instead Senior Care to learn how a CAREGiver can help.

For more information about pet care, visit The Humane Society of the United States website at www.humanesociety.org. For more information about the Home Instead Senior Care network, visit www.homeinstead.com or call 866-996-1087.