Animal Therapy for Seniors

A senior citizen plays with his therapy animals.A senior citizen plays with his therapy animals.
A senior citizen plays with his therapy animals.A senior citizen plays with his therapy animals.

Just about anyone who has ever spent time with a cat or dog can attest to the fact that their unconditional love and affection has immediate benefits. Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, noticed these benefits more than a century and a half ago, writing that an animal often makes an “excellent companion” for anyone suffering with an illness.

In recent years, scientists have all but confirmed the benefits of animal companionship, suggesting that even a few minutes with an animal can have considerable positive effects on both the brain and the body.

Hospitals, nursing facilities, and volunteer organizations have noticed these benefits as well. They’ve made animal-assisted therapy an increasingly popular option for seniors — whether they’re living with an illness or just looking for a pick-me-up. Senior care has truly gone to the dogs, in a good way.

What Is Animal Therapy?

The term “animal therapy” refers to a broad range of pet-assisted programs. Sometimes, animals help facilitate physical rehabilitation or provide comfort throughout potentially stressful procedures. In other instances, therapy animals serve a more general purpose by comforting patients for a period of around ten to fifteen minutes. By simply spending time with the patient, they help to alleviate anxiety and improve well-being.

Mental and Physical Benefits

When animals take part in the treatment and recovery process, the results are impressive. Experts, including the animal-assisted therapy research team at UCLA, have identified a host of potential benefits.

Mental Health Benefits

  • Simply petting a dog, cat, or other therapy animal promotes the release of mood-elevating hormones like serotonin and oxytocin.
  • Companionship with an animal provides comfort, alleviates anxiety, and reduces loneliness.
  • The extra stimulation provided by animal therapy can help promote alertness and encourage patients to socialize and communicate more effectively. This can be transformative for patients suffering from diseases like Alzheimer’s or recovering from traumatic brain injuries.

Physical Health Benefits

  • Animal therapy is often effective in encouraging patients to enthusiastically take part in physical rehabilitation.
  • Many of the hormones that animal therapy helps release can have a pain-fighting effect for seniors.
  • Just a few minutes with a therapy animal can reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health.

While the benefits of animal therapy are myriad, there are relatively few risks. So long as animals are clean, properly trained, and vaccinated, animal therapy should not be considered risky for most seniors.

Pet Therapy Programs for You

Pet-assisted therapy programs are becoming more and more popular as people learn about the remarkable benefits of animal companionship. They’re not just for patients in hospitals and other institutions either. Your local library or community center may be hosting an animal therapy event soon.

Healthy seniors living at home might even consider enjoying these benefits full time by adopting or fostering a pet of their own. A well-behaved, low-maintenance senior pet could be a great option for animal lovers looking to brighten up their day and get a little extra exercise.

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