Pet Therapy May Help Improve Health

elderly woman in assisted living community in overstuffed chair with dog in her lap. Dog is giving the woman kisses and she is smiling

Anyone who owns a pet can tell you the joy they bring to one’s life. The simple act of petting a dog or curling up with a cat can lift one’s spirits. And pet ownership has been shown to have numerous health benefits as well.

The American Heart Association says that having a pet might lower you risk of heart disease. “Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease” said Glenn N. Levine, M.D., professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Although they didn’t go so far as to say that owning a pet directly attributed to the lower risk, the statement noted that research shows that:

  • Dog owners were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity than non-dog owners.
  • Owning pets may be associated with lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and obesity.
  • Pets can have a positive effect on the body’s reactions to stress.

Unfortunately, for many seniors, pet ownership may not be an option. That’s where pet therapy (or animal-assisted therapy) comes in. Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a specially trained animal and an individual or group, facilitated by the animal’s handler. Creating the opportunity for this population to be able to interact with animals has helped enhance the lives of people with dementia, depression and PTSD.

Studies with Alzheimer’s patients have shown that interaction with animals can reduce agitation, increase positive social behavior (smiling, laughing, talking) and improve appetites. A recent pilot program in Germany with nursing home residents living with dementia showed that participants in animal-assisted therapy sessions showed improved verbal communication and attentiveness. In a study conducted at Purdue University, even having an aquarium of fish helped nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s become more relaxed and alert and less likely to become aggressive or wander off.

Pet therapy is also a favorite treatment for depression. The simple act of petting an animal may release endorphins, which trigger positive feelings. Also, by focusing on the needs of the animal, people will often stop dwelling on their own issues, allowing them to live more in the moment. 

With so much evidence that points to an increased sense of health and well-being among those who interact with animals, it makes sense that animals are now being used as tools of therapy for individuals living with a variety of chronic conditions. That’s why animals are now commonly used for therapeutic purposes in hospitals, senior living communities, nursing homes, and even in hospice settings. Charlesgate has a pet therapy program in our assisted living communities and it has proven to be very popular. To learn more about our program, give us a call at 401.861.5858.

So, when giving Rover a treat for sitting or shaking your hand or rolling over, recognize that his simple existence in your life is enriching it in ways you never even imagined.

Categories: Senior Health