Critter Companions as Pet Therapy

The companionship of a pet can be a vital component of bringing purpose and engagement opportunities for all humans. However, older adults are especially impacted in positive ways when they spend time with a pet.

Engaging with animals can combat loneliness and isolation, bring comfort and camaraderie while reducing stress and enhancing overall health and wellness.

Defining Pet Therapy

The Mayo Clinic describes Pet Therapy as: a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities.

Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and mental health disorders.

Animal-assisted activities, on the other hand, have a more general purpose, such as providing comfort and enjoyment for elders in long-term living settings or personal homes.

Follow the Science

A peer-reviewed study cited by the U.S. National Institute of Health notes that human-pet interaction is a key component to good health and well-being in older adults. Findings indicate that those aging adults who own a pet see these positive outcomes:

  • They get more physical activity
  • Have increased social interaction
  • Decrease their risk for heart disease
  • A greater sense of purpose
  • Provide a sense of security

In a University of Michigan National poll on healthy aging amongst a representative sample of pet owners they found:

  • 88% said their pets helped them enjoy life
  • 86% said the pet made them feel loved
  • 79% reported less stress
  • 73% said they had a heightened sense of purpose
  • 64% said they’re more physically active because of their pet
  • 62% reported their pets helped them stick to a routine

Health Benefits

According to the Journal of the American Heart Association, seniors who own pets (most notably dogs) are at a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease because being a pet owner keeps them more active.

The Cleveland Clinic notes that pets can help elders have better mental health by slowing the impact of dementia while elevating mood and decreasing depression.

In a study involving almost 4 million people throughout the USA, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK it was determined that being a dog owner was associated with a 24% reduction in mortality.

Another study found that spending just 15 minutes with an animal initiates hormonal changes in the brain, dropping stress levels and increasing the ‘feel-good hormone’ of serotonin.

Animal Experiences

Activity professionals working in senior living communities are highly encouraged to coordinate a variety of ways for the elders in their care to engage in animal experiences.  Develop a list of volunteers who can bring in their therapy animals to your location. And don’t think that dogs are your only options for animal-assisted activities. Horses, donkeys, rabbits, birds, hamsters, gerbils and even llamas can all be options to bring into your location to engage with your residents. Simple searches within your area will undoubtedly uncover nearby options available to you and those you serve.

For family caregivers who may not have a pet in the home, there are volunteer organizations that provide visitation therapy and will bring their pets to your location. A quick internet search should yield options in your area. Reaching out to your Area Agency on Aging is another resource that may be able to connect you to options near you.

As the Saying Goes

We don’t always need advice. Sometimes, all we need is a paw to hold, an ear to listen, and a heart that understands. Sometimes all we need is a dog.