Pet therapy is becoming an increasingly popular method of emotional support for the elderly. Trained service dogs are well-known for their ability to help those with limited abilities to live their daily lives. However, the emotional and physical benefits of basic pet therapy for seniors is often overlooked; almost any common household pet (cat, dog, bird, rabbit, et cetera) can be a support animal. The benefits range depending on the senior’s needs, but can be numerous.
What is pet therapy for seniors?
Put simply, this is a form of mild therapy used primarily for emotional and cognitive support. Having a pet to care for and interact with can lower stress in seniors, as well as increase physical activity, and reduce feelings of loneliness. Pet therapy is a general term for the use of animal companionship as treatment. This is sometimes provided as a service in seniors’ residences, rehabilitation centers, and, of course, at home.
While almost any type of animal can be a therapy pet, it’s important that it has proper behavior, isn’t too large, and has at least some training.
Benefits of Animal Therapy
Often, seniors who don’t respond well to other types of therapy will still feel better when they have a companion animal. Many elderly pet owners will benefit from:
- Increased self-esteem;
- Lower chance of high blood pressure (thanks to reduced stress);
- Decreased feelings of anxiety, isolation, and depression;
- Improved motor skills;
- Increased levels of physical activity.
Believe it or not, people with a furry companion even tend to recover faster from surgery or injuries. Additionally, having a pet to care for can give the elderly a sense of comfort and being needed.
As we age, we tend to walk, move, and even stand less. This makes getting adequate exercise a problem for seniors, but having a pet can encourage physical activity, such as daily walks. Exercise is key to preventing many diseases related to old age.
The biggest benefit of owning a pet, however, comes from the companionship they offer. Many seniors live alone, and don’t see friends or family often. In these cases, a pet can reduce feelings of loneliness, and inspire social interactions with other pet owners (such as dog owners, who often meet other owners while on walks).
Pet therapy has also been used in many retirement homes as a way to help seniors with dementia and Alzheimer’s, as having animals to spend time with has been shown to decrease feelings of anxiety.
Should Your Elderly Loved One Get a Pet?
As we’ve covered in this article, there are many benefits to having an animal companion, especially for older adults. It’s important to remember, however, that many factors need to be considered before getting a senior a pet. Animal therapy should only be an option for those in a residence that provides pet therapy services, who are autonomous enough to take care of the animal, or who have home care assistance from a professional caregiver or family member.
If you’re thinking of pet therapy as an option a loved one, you may want to take these points into consideration:
- Do they have any physical impairments or limitations? If so, a pet that requires exercise, such as a dog, is not a good idea. Cats, birds and fish are better options;
- What size animal is right for them? Large dogs are often hard to handle, and can pose a great health risk if they jump up on a senior. Smaller pets may be a better choice, but can potentially pose a tripping hazard;
- Have they had a pet before? It’s best if the senior is an experienced owner (and, of course, that they love animals). If not, the sudden introduction of a new pet may be too much for a senior who is set in their normal daily routine;
- Will they be able to look after a pet? If a senior lives alone and can’t provide care for an animal, then it’s not a good idea. However, if they live with family or a caregiver who can help feed, walk, and care for the pet, then it may be an option;
- Do they live in a senior’s residence? If so, are there emotional support animal services offered? It’s worth asking someone who works at the retirement home before getting a pet;
- How old should the pet be? In most cases, a puppy or kitten is not a good idea, because they need a lot of attention, care, and have plenty of energy that may wear out a senior. On top of this, while it’s not something we normally want to think about, there’s the potential issue of a pet outliving their owner (this is especially true for animals with very long lifespans, such as birds and turtles);
- What animal would fit the senior’s disposition? If you’re considering a dog as a good pet, remember that there are many dog breeds, each with differing temperaments and levels of energy. Do some research on different breeds before making a decision;
- Will someone be able to care for the pet in an emergency? It’s something that, although depressing to think about, needs to be taken into account. What happens if your loved one needs to be moved into a hospital, or a long-term care facility? In the worst-case scenario, a senior may pass away before their pet. This makes it important to have someone willing to take care of the animal as a back-up plan.
P.S. – Pet therapy can be an effective form of elder care; however, remember that nothing can replace a human connection, especially if your loved one has physical limitations in their daily lives. If you need a caregiver for a member of your family, please don’t hesitate to contact Complete Care Coordination today for a free consultation with a nurse.