Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is the use of cats, dogs, or other animals to provide a health benefit to its human companion. The goal of pet therapy is to improve the patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. This is a relatively new field of study even though the human-animal bond has existed for thousands of years. However, pet therapy has been used for about 40 years with senior citizens in assisted living facilities, day care centers, hospitals, and private homes.
Studies have proven that pet therapy is effective in helping the elderly both physically and mentally. Some of the physical benefits of animal-assisted therapy are lowering blood pressure and triggering the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which can elevate mood. It has also been found that owning a pet can lower blood triglyceride levels, increase activity and socialization, lower stress, reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, and even increase the length of survival following a heart attack.
Animal-assisted therapy seems to be especially effective for senior citizens suffering from cognitive impairments such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that regular contact with a pet can help decrease anxiety and increase feelings of calm and well-being. This can be especially helpful for Sundowners Syndrome patients who tend to experience increased anxiety in the evenings. Some Alzheimer’s patients have been able to stop taking anti-anxiety medication after regular contact with a pet was initiated. Pet therapy has been shown to help enhance connection for dementia patients to the surrounding world.
Another area where pet therapy has proven effective in the elderly is in seniors struggling with depression. Pet therapy has also been also recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health as a type of psychotherapy for treating depression and other mood disorders. A pet can help a depressed senior remain active, keep him or her from feeling socially withdrawn, and provide constant companionship. If an elderly patient is dealing with depression, getting a pet might be a very helpful form of therapy.
There is very little risk in trying pet therapy with the elderly; however, there are a few things to be cautious of. Make sure that the pet has had its routine veterinary screening and is free of disease. It is also important to make sure the patient is not allergic to the animal being used for pet therapy or that he or she has not had a traumatic history with animals. If the senior lives in a senior community it important to make sure the community allows pets. Read this article for more information on “Is Your Senior Community Pet-Friendly? How to Tell.” Above all, make sure that the senior is capable for caring for the pet. If they are not there are many agencies that provide visiting pet services that give seniors the chance to interact with pets without the responsibility of providing full-time care.