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The benefits of pet therapy

Having a pet can be one of the greatest joys in life. They bring happiness, fun and a sense of family to people.

Key Points:

  • If you are unable to bring your pet into an aged care facility, you may still be able to engage with animals through pet therapy

  • Older people feel more energised, enthusiastic, and inspired after spending time with a pet

  • People with dementia seem to have positive reactions to pet therapy sessions

Older woman with her dog
Animal visits are one way nursing homes aim to improve residents’ moods. [Source: Shutterstock]

Pets not only offer companionship and unconditional love, in fact, emerging research suggests they may have the ability to boost health and general well-being, especially in the elderly.

Unfortunately, many aged care facilities are not pet-friendly. The family dog may not be able to make the trip into a nursing home with their owner.

Luckily, pet therapy is becoming more widely used throughout aged care facilities. Animal visits are one way nursing homes aim to improve residents’ moods.

What is pet therapy?

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, involves treatment through a guided animal interaction to improve someone's physical, mental or social health.

There is proven psychological and physiological benefits of animal therapy.

Research has found people who have pets or interact with pets, are generally more healthier compared with non-pet owners.

Pet therapy is available in residential aged care settings, retirement living, home and community care, at rehabilitation centres and hospices.

Benefits of pet therapy for the elderly

Pet therapy has the ability to enhance someone's quality of life, can have ongoing physical benefits and improve any ongoing health ailments.

The Animal Welfare League (AWL) of New South Wales advocates for elderly people engaging with pets as it increases their quality of life, including through reducing tension, fatigue, and confusion, while also encouraging positive emotions and attitudes. 

Pet therapy also delays the process of ageing through the increase of physical exercise, socialisation and improvement in mental function.

The excitement of pet therapy can boost residents' activity levels and help improve the sense of loss many former pet owners feel after moving into an aged care facility. This can go a long way to improve residents’ mental health. 

Spending time with pets is correlated to fewer visits to the doctor and reduced medication intake, as well as lower cholesterol and blood pressure. 

Elderly people who take part in pet therapy also recover quicker from illness and surgery, deal with stressful situations better, and have a reduced risk of heart disease.

Pet therapy is also a great way of re-engaging an older person who is normally unresponsive to other therapies. A furry friend can make elderly people feel needed and comforted, and pets can remind the person of former, well-loved pets from their past.

Bringing a dog into an aged care facility for example, can make the sterile, hospital-like environment feel a lot more homely and joyful. Pet therapy is a great way to pass on the benefits that many pet owners experience.

Benefits of pet therapy for dementia patients

Pet therapy has fantastic effects on a person with dementia due to the calming nature of animals.

Animals can be quite soothing and can help a person with dementia communicate, speak and articulate themselves better when they are feeling comfortable.

An animal also encourages a person with dementia to express themselves through non-verbal communication and action

There is evidence to suggest pet therapy can make a person with dementia re-engage with what is happening around them.

A German study from 2014 found dementia residents in a nursing home had improved verbal communication function and greater attentiveness after completing a pet therapy program.

Backing up the benefits of pet therapy, a 2020 Australian study found that dog assisted therapy seemed to have a positive effect on recipients, including improving the baseline depression scores in residents.

Pet therapy can fit in with personal care goals

When an older person loses the capacity to do something they had previously been quite proficient at, it can bring a sense of loss to that individual.

It’s common for a resident to have a care plan around personal goals they want to achieve, whether that is physically, socially or mentally. Pet therapy can provide assistance to reach certain individual goals and fits well within care plans.

Aged care nurses, caregivers or pet therapy teams can access an individual on whether they are meeting their aspirations and goals in their care plan.

Some of the goals pet therapy programs can help with include:

  • Improving motor skills and joint movement

  • Increasing self-esteem

  • Improving assisted or independent movement

  • Increasing in verbal communication and development of social skills

  • Improving willingness to join in activities

  • Motivation to exercise

What pet would you love to see visit you in aged care? Tell us in the comments below

Related content:

Mental health services for older people in aged care
Dementia
Mental benefits of puzzles and brain games for older people

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