My favorite cartoonist, the late Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame, wrote that, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” I wonder if he knew that happiness is just the start when it comes to enhancing the lives of older loved ones in nursing homes or assisted living, terminal patients such as those suffering from AIDS, children with special needs and even caregivers looking to improve their own health. Known as Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), there is a growing movement to increase animal/patient interactions for health and wellness benefits.
The notion of pet therapy all began in the 1860s although most of the studies were conducted in the 1980s. While the medical community is still waiting for scientific data that shows pet therapy can have long-term or behavioral change benefits, even famous nurse Florence Nightingale recognized that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill over 150 years ago. In an effort to prove the therapeutic benefits of pet therapy, the National Institutes of Health has funded grants to study scientific evidence-based research in therapeutic effects on children.
You may have read about the dogs that can smell cancer in their owner long before a formal diagnosis is made, help calm children who have an epileptic seizure or even bring people out of comas. One story from Pet Partners (formerly known as the Delta Society) is that they were called to visit a terminally ill patient. When the handler arrived with her cat, the patient had slipped into a coma. As the handler put the cat into the bed, the patient suddenly awoke, removed his arms from under the sheets and started to pet the cat. I truly believe animals have special healing powers and a sixth sense. To back up my notion, I read that Dr. Edward Creagan of the Mayo Clinic Medical School observed, “If pet ownership was a medication, it would be patented tomorrow.”
While dogs, cats and rabbits are most commonly used with older patients, dolphins and horses have also proved effective with children with mental health issues, epilepsy, physical disabilities or autism. The biggest benefits of cozying up to a “warm puppy” are:
Older loved ones often feel isolated whether living alone at home or in a facility such as a nursing home or assisted living. In fact, Human-Animal Interactions published a study of elderly dog owners revealing 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women considered their dog their only friend. Some studies have found that just a few minutes a day petting or visiting with an animal lowers the stress hormone of cortisol and increases the feel-good hormone of serotonin. The results can range from lowered heart rates and blood pressure to decreased depression. For older loved ones still living at home, if they can manage the daily needs of a pet (feeding, walking), some surveys have found that the interaction and companionship of a pet can improve your loved one’s health through increased physical activity and even lower pain levels in some arthritis patients.
Depression in older patients can be common, especially if they recently lost a spouse, received a terminal diagnosis or had to move from the comforts of home. Pet therapy or even a new pet can provide unconditional love, comfort and helps reduce anxiety, particularly noted in nursing home patients.
Many assisted living facilities now have a Pet Care Coordinator to help seniors care for their own pet. If an owner forgets to feed the pet or it becomes too difficult to walk them frequently, the Pet Care Coordinator can help keep pets up-to-date on veterinary visits, grooming and vaccinations. Silverado Senior Living, which includes memory care facilities for Alzheimer’s and dementia care residents, encourages pets in the facility – both privately owned pets and visits from pet therapy organizations. Pet therapy for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia has also proven to be a powerful tool for what is known as “sundowners,” the evening periods where patients become agitated or confused.
Animals have even proven to be valuable members of the hospice team for a terminally ill loved one. There is a famous cat in Providence, Rhode Island known as Oscar who is one of the critical members of the hospice team in the local nursing home. Patients and family members have reported that when Oscar would enter the room, there was a sense of calm—even though Oscar was known by residents as visiting a room when someone was dying. As opposed to a bad omen, Oscar brought comfort and peace to both the patient and their family members. Oscar stays with the patient, sitting quietly in their lap or on their bed where he remains until the loved one has passed.
For children with autism, pets can improve their communication skills, which can often be stressful. Because animals are non-judgmental, special needs kids relax and are able to absorb other benefits during their pet therapy sessions. Animals’ nonverbal communication and profound acceptance can be soothing for those with difficulty using language. Hippotherapy, which is therapeutic horseback riding, is practiced in 24 countries and benefits those with physical, psychological, cognitive, social, and behavioral problems. In fact, the American Speech and Hearing Association now recognize hippotherapy as a treatment method for individuals with speech disorders. While some benefit from the connection and the relationship built with the horse, other riders benefit physically from the movements that help build core strength, body awareness and muscle memory.
Pets can also benefit the caregivers. Caregiving can make you feel like you are all alone. While adding a pet to the list of loved ones you have to care for may seem like overload, having that happy face and wagging tail ready to give you some unconditional love when you return home can benefit caregivers as well. Studies have found that caregivers are twice as likely as the general public to develop chronic illness due to the prolonged stress of caring for a loved one. If having a pet can increase your exercise, lower your blood pressure and bring a smile to your face – maybe finding a Lassie, swimming with Flipper, holding Thumper or riding Mr. Ed is just what the doctor has ordered.
Pet therapy organizations
Following are organizations where you can find pet therapy handlers/animals or participate in caregiving pet events:
Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) Therapy Animal Program trains and screens volunteers with their pets so they can visit patients/clients in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice and physical therapy centers, schools, libraries and many other facilities. The Pet Partners Service Animal Program provides information and resources for people with disabilities, as well as their friends and family, who are considering getting a service animal or who are currently partnered with a service animal.
Pets for the Elderly Foundation matches seniors with cats and dogs by underwriting the pets’ adoptions.
Therapy Dogs Inc. is a national registrar with a listing of more than 12,000 handler/dog teams in U.S. and Canada. The organization provides registration, support and insurance for volunteers who want to provide pet therapy services.
Numerous organizations in local communities, including Pet Therapy, a non-profit organization in Southwest Florida, bring pets into nursing homes for weekly visits with puppies and dogs brought by adult and even child volunteers.
- Caring for Alzheimer’s
- Sleep Issues and Sundowning
- Green-Field Library Alternative Therapies Reading List (Scroll down to Pet-Animal section)
About Blog Author Sherri Snelling
Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self care” while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is currently writing a book about celebrities who have been caregivers.