Bay Alarm Medical
Kelly Johnsen

Pet Therapy For The Elderly

Topic(s) : Elderly Caregiving Support, Elderly Services, Senior Health Services, Senior Living News

A golden retriever is dressed up like a doctor holding a stethoscope in it's mouth.

Our furry friends are not only fun to play with, but they have also proven to be very beneficial for the elderly in terms of health. Throughout this article, we’ll cover why pets make us feel good, what Pet Therapy is and how it works, and where you can find Pet Therapy resources.


Why Do Pets Make Us Feel Good?

An elderly woman smiling ear-to-ear while petting a therapy dog dressed up in an Easter costume.

Many research studies have demonstrated that spending even just a short period of time with a pet “sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowers levels of the fight-or-flight hormone Cortisol, and increases production of the feel-good hormone Serotonin” (Byrne, 2014).

When we think of household pets, we usually tend to think of humans playing the role of the caregiver to the pet, but often it is really the pet who is taking care of us. This is evidenced by the fact that senior living facilities all across the country are now beginning to implement a new health practice called Pet Therapy.


What Is Pet Therapy?

An older woman holds a dog while laying in a hospital bed, and smiles while stroking the dog.

Pet Therapy is commonly used in nursing homes and hospitals. Pets are brought in by volunteers to visit with the elderly for scheduled periods of time. This can help patients who need physical rehabilitation, loving attention without the commitment of owning a pet, and those who may need emotional and social support and do have family nearby to provide it.

Pet Therapy can be a life-changing treatment for the elderly. Pet Therapy has shown signs of improving health conditions commonly found among seniors such as high blood pressure, increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as feelings of loneliness. At the same time, interacting with pets increases their physical activity and helps to enhance their socialization skills.

“Walking a dog is great cardiovascular exercise, but just the simple act of caring for a pet – petting, brushing, feeding – provides both mild activity and a means to stay engaged with the world. Pets can make the elderly feel needed, and that feeling can translate into a great sense of purpose and self-worth. During what can be lonely time, the unconditional love of a cherished dog or cat can be a brdige to more socialization with others, lowered stress, mental stimulation, and a renewed interest in life” (Byrne, 2014).


How Does Pet Therapy Work?

A hospital worker brings a tiny horse in to meet an elderly patient for pet therapy.

There are several different types of Pet Therapy available in senior care facilities. Some do not allow pets, others allow the residents to keep their pets with them, and some do no allow pets, but will allow seniors to have a short visitation with a pet.

Visitation Therapy is the most common type of animal therapy. This involves house animals like dogs and cats, coming to hospitals, senior centers, and nursing homes to have short visits with the seniors. Interactions with animals can help in making new residents more comfortable with their environment, and increases their desire to socialize with others.

Ownership Therapy involves treating the pet as a sort of prescription. Pet ownership provides mental and emotional benefits to the patient, such as increased self-confidence, increased sense of purpose, and increased mood.

Animal-assisted therapy is a more intensive form of therapy, where patients who have physical disabilities or impairments interact with sensitive animals like dolphins or horses. This helps them regain strength and physical skills, while at the same time boosting their self-esteem (Byrne, 2014).

Although it may seem that a short visit with a pet cannot possibly provide enough time to be effective, studies have revealed that even a 15 minute interaction with can be beneficial. In that short window of time, patients have seen a boost in Serotonin as mentioned above, and the act of stroking a pet can help to lower blood pressure.


What’s The Catch?

A veterinary assistant grooming a dog with a brush.

The catch with Pet Therapy is that any program employing Pet Therapy practices has to be able to ensure the pets’ well-being and proper care. Some seniors may be prone to forgetting to feed the pet, groom the pet, or administer any medications that it may need. In instances like these, Ownership Therapy may not be the best solution.

A senior living community or health institution wishing to offer Pet Therapy, needs have someone in charge of coordinating the pets. They should have an employee, or even a team, available to make sure the pets are all getting their health needs taken care of if a senior is not able to.


How To Find a Pet Therapy Program Near You

A senior in wheelchair pets a golden retriever therapy dog.

  • Nursing Homes – Call your local nursing homes to see if Pet Therapy is offered.
  • Department of Human Resources – Your community’s department of human resources sometimes has a separate division specifically for seniors health and welfare, and may be able to offer you some information about Pet Therapy.
  • Healthcare Providers – Be sure to ask your doctor, or a geriatrician, about Pet Therapy resources.
  • Pet Stores – Call your local pet store to get information about Pet Therapy programs near you.
  • The American Kennel Club – The AKC lists certified therapy dog organizations on their website. You can find this list here.




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