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Pet Therapy Can Help Seniors Live a Healthier and More Fulfilling Life

senior woman hugging her dog in the park


Most pet owners can tell you firsthand of the joys animals bring to one’s life. In fact, bring up the subject of pets and many people will regale you with more stories than you are probably interested in. The connection between animals and humans has existed for millennia and research has confirmed that there may be numerous benefits for both that have led to this enduring bond.

Physical Health

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.

Emotional Health

Pets provide companionship and keep seniors engaged in life. The positive effects of socialization on our health have been well documented – and meaningful connection doesn’t have to be with another human to be beneficial. A study published in Aging & Mental Health showed that older adults who were pet owners were 36 percent less likely than non-pet owners to describe feelings of loneliness. Walking a dog can also be a great way to get some exercise and meet new people. Pets can also ease 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.

Pet therapy

Unfortunately, for many seniors of those living with debilitating disabilities, 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, PTSD and autism. For instance, 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 resident 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.

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.

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: Healthy Aging