Pet Therapy: What Is It and Does It Work?

Posted by Dave Tomar on September 12, 2014

Pet Therapy: What Is It and Does It Work?

If you’ve ever had a cherished pet, you know how sensitive, intuitive and comforting a furry friend can be.  The loyalty, companionship and unconditional love that you receive from your cat or dog can be exactly what the doctor ordered when you’re feeling lonely or blue.

But your pet may have more to offer than a friendly wag and a belly to scratch.  According to A Place For Mom, even just a little bit of quality time with a pet can have significant benefits for your physical and mental well-being.  These benefits inform the practice of pet therapy, an assisted living strategy that pairs seniors with good-natured animals and usually brings great joy to both.

What is Pet Therapy?

Aged Care Guide defines pet therapy as a viable alternative strategy for improving social, emotional and cognitive function in seniors.  Seniors may interact with animals either in a long-term care setting, retirement community, rehabilitation center or personal residence.  While dogs, cats and other household animals are the most common practicing pet therapists, domesticated farm animals have also been known to yield a therapeutic effect.

Researchers explain that this effect is more than the fuzzy feeling you get from your pet.  In fact, as few as 15 minutes spent bonding with a pet can stimulate a sequence of positive chemical reactions in the brain.  A Place For Mom notes that time spent with a pet can reduce production of cortisol, a hormone triggered by your fight-or-flight instincts.  Simultaneously, the experience can promote production of the pleasure-inducing hormone, serotonin. 

This means that a good relationship with an animal companion can help to lower your heart rate, your blood pressure and your anxiety level.  In the long term, this relationship can help to fight the effects of depression and even heart disease. 

How Does Pet Therapy Work?

Pet therapy is an excellent outlet for seniors with a wide spectrum of needs.  Certain breeds of dog, in particular, have shown a great disposition toward therapy training.  In addition to providing companionship and unconditional love, these animals can offer seniors a renewed purpose, an avenue for socializing, positive physical interaction and opportunities for increased activeness.  This makes pet therapy a compelling option for seniors recovering from surgery, coping with illness or struggling against cognitive decline.

Your health and living situation will have a strong impact on your candidacy for this type of treatment.  Some senior communities and assisted living facilities will make time for special visits from pet therapy agencies.  Organizations like Pet Partners help to pair trained pats with senior communities in need.

But for seniors living alone, pet therapy or even just pet ownership can have tremendous benefits.  Whether you are recovering from injury or illness, or seeking companionship, consider reaching out to a nearby rehabilitation facility or community health center.  Pet therapy services may be available in your area.

Pet Partners also points out that if you are able-bodied and capable of providing the necessary care for a pet, you may be a good candidate for adoption.  Seniors with limited mobility are advised to consider well-heeled, adult pets who are relatively low-maintenance.  But if you do feel you have the ability to take care of one, a good pet needs no special training at all to show you affection, keep you company or improve your health. 


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