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Pet Therapy

The founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale was advocating the benefits of pet therapy in those she treated back in the 1800s. And according to records, animal-assisted interventions have been used since as far back as the 18th Century.

Of course, the human-animal bond has existed for much longer. It’s clear that a love of animals runs in our veins, and pet therapy builds on this interaction.

“Animals fulfil emotional needs when considered a companion or partnerFurthermore, relationships with animals can facilitate learning, provide comfort, promote a sense of safety and improve self‐esteem” (Rosenkoetter, 1991).

Ask any pet owner, whatever their age, and they’ll undoubtedly tell you how much joy, comfort and engagement their companion brings them. And while not everyone is in a position to own a pet, we can all find ways to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of animal interactions to help us lead a happier life.

What is pet therapy?

Also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT) or animal-assisted interventions (AAI), pet therapy is a form of holistic or complementary treatment that uses guided animal interactions to help improve certain physical, psychological and emotional health concerns. In other words, it uses the natural healing ability of spending time with animals to help make us feel better.

There are three different types of pet therapy:

  • Ownership therapy (owning and caring for a pet)
  • Animal-assisted therapy or AAT (the use of animals in defined treatment goals as part of a structured care plan)
  • Animal-assisted activities (AAA), sometimes known as visitation therapy, (visits by an animal with their handler to someone’s home or in a community setting)

Man’s best friend – dogs – are most often used in pet therapy. But this type of complementary treatment can involve any suitably-natured animals, including cats, horses, birds, fish, and smaller pets like guinea pigs.

How can pet therapy benefit the elderly?

More and more medical practitioners are recognising the therapeutic use of animals to help ease the symptoms of a number of physical and mental health complaints. Numerous studies have shown that time spent in the presence of an animal can alter our physical, cognitive and emotional responses. Pet therapy can therefore benefit anyone, but particularly seniors, by:

Providing comfort

By providing a calming source of support and reassurance, animals can help ease anxiety, especially in new situations or environments. The unconditional affection we receive from our pets helps us feel loved and more emotionally stable as a result.

Animals, especially the four-legged kind, can bring us comfort, joy and happiness. Just stroking an animal fulfils the basic human need for touch and provides sensory stress relief.

Many of us also feel safer with a pet around.

Combating loneliness

The number of over 50s experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2026 according to Age UK.

By offering companionship, animal interactions can be particularly effective in helping deal with loss, loneliness, and other situations that may cause depression or anxiety.

There is a lot of evidence to show that spending time with animals can boost emotional wellbeing following traumatic experiences such as the loss of a loved one or serious illness. Pet therapy can help reduce feelings of social isolation.

Increasing exercise

Aches and pains, together with reduced mobility, can be a recipe for inactivity, sluggishness, and ultimately a decline in general health. That’s why staying as physically active and mobile as we comfortably can becomes increasingly important as we get older.

Pet therapy can help keep us active and boost energy levels by encouraging healthy lifestyle changes. Along with the benefits of meeting people, getting out and about regularly really helps to support our overall health and wellbeing.

Whether it’s a daily dog walk, horse riding or simply interacting with a pet at home, animals encourage us to keep moving, helping to free up our muscles and loosen those joints.

Providing purpose

Time spent with or caring for, an animal reduces boredom and can offer a sense of purpose, fulfilment and a reason for living.

No matter if it’s daily feeding and caring for an animal or receiving regular visits from a pet with their handler, the routine provides positive structure and gives us something to enjoy and look forward to each day.

Pets are also a great source of fun, helping to keep us entertained, engaged and enjoying life.

Increasing self-esteem

Animals have an incredible way of bringing people out of themselves. We often see an increase in social responses such as smiling or speaking in the presence of a pet.

By building self-confidence and reducing anxiety, animal-assisted therapies can help to increase verbal communication and improve interactions with others, really helping to boost social wellbeing.

Pet therapy can also help to improve self-worth and encourage seniors to take better care of themselves.

Protecting our insides

It seems that pets are also good for our hearts, and not only because of their unconditional love and affection. Animal company has also been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and improve overall cardiovascular health.

“The Baker Medical Research Institute in Australia studied 6,000 people and found that those who kept animals had lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol – and therefore, a lower risk of heart attack.” (The Guardian, 2008)

Separate research also shows that regular exposure to cats or dogs could reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, which has been attributed to the immune-boosting allergens in their fur.

This also goes for our general health, with a Cambridge University study finding that those who own pets report fewer minor ailments like headaches, coughs and colds, says Age UK. According to HelpGuide.org, “Pet owners over age 65 make 30% fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.”

Promoting relaxation

Research shows that petting an animal or watching fish swim releases endorphins which help to relax the body and mind.

“Petting a dog with which one is bonded to promotes relaxation, characterised by decreased blood pressure and increases in peripheral skin temperature” (Baun, Oetting & Bergstrom, 1991).

Spending time in the company of animals can be very soothing, helping us to feel calm and relaxed.

This is particularly beneficial to those who may be experiencing agitation, frustration or confusion with the onset of age-related memory loss, for example.

Could pet therapy benefit you?

If you are thinking of getting a pet yourself or wondering how to choose the best pet for a senior loved one, there is some useful advice over on the Age UK website.

Also check out charities like Pets as Therapy and HenPower who work to enhance health and wellbeing in the community, with volunteers who take their own behaviorally-approved pets to visit people in need across the UK.

Our bathing solutions are especially suitable for seniors with reduced mobility or disabilities. Designed to help you feel safe, comfortable and relaxed, the range includes easy-access walk-in baths, walk-in showers and wet rooms to suit your home and individual needs. Find out more about our bathing solutions here.