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How Does Pet Therapy Help the Elderly?

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If you have a cat or dog in your life, then you know how much joy they bring you every single day. Sometimes, as seniors get older, they can’t handle the rigors of caring for a pet, even if they could benefit from their companionship. This is where pet therapy comes in. How does this form of therapy aid seniors?

Pet therapy can help the elderly in the following ways:

  • Could lessen the risk of heart disease 
  • May lower cholesterol
  • Can reduce feelings of loneliness
  • Improves a senior’s socialization
  • Boosts a senior’s physical activity levels 
  • Acts as a means of stability and reliability
  • Could improve the senior’s mental health

In this article, we will go in-depth into all things pet therapy, explaining what it is and how it works. We’ll also elaborate on the above benefits. If you have an elderly parent or loved one in your life who you think could use pet therapy, this is the article for you.

The Benefits Of Pet Therapy

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a therapeutic means of treating physical and mental health issues through interactions with animals. This service is frequently offered at hospitals, mental health institutions, nursing homes and senior care facilities, and even prisons. A person may have their own assistance dog or might just visit these places with an animal.

Pet therapy has a myriad of benefits for the elderly, such as the points we touched on in the intro. Let’s expand on these now, so you can decide if pet therapy is right for the senior in your life.

Less Risk Of Heart Disease And High Cholesterol

If your senior has high cholesterol, they’re more likely to end up with heart disease. While modifying one’s diet can lower cholesterol, so too can getting more exercise. That’s why a Harvard Health article said that owning a dog is so helpful, as a more active senior may have lower triglycerides and cholesterol.

In case you’re not familiar, triglycerides are a type of ester from fatty acids and glycerol. You’re at an elevated risk of getting heart disease when your triglyceride levels are too high. By getting both their cholesterol and triglycerides under control then, your senior could have a healthier heart.

Also contributing to heart health is that the Harvard article notes the calming nature of dogs can lower blood pressure. Harvard mentions, as well, that “pet ownership, especially having a dog, is probably associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Less Isolation

It’s easy for seniors to feel lonely, especially if they’re living in a facility or on their own. You may try to visit as often as you can, but your senior still spends a lot of time alone. With a pet, they’re never truly by themselves. They have a tireless companion who wants to be near them around the clock. That eliminates or at least severely reduces loneliness and isolation.

Better Socialization

A therapy cat or dog lets a senior sharpen their socialization skills as well. The animal acts as a sounding board, allowing the senior to say whatever is on their mind with no fear of retribution or judgment. After all, animals love unabashedly and unconditionally, letting seniors speak honestly about their emotions and concerns without disastrous consequences. In that regard, the therapy dog or cat becomes an emotional buoy, always there when the senior needs them.

A Boost in Physical Activity

Having a pet is a lot of work. Dogs require walks or at least trips outside several times a day. Even cats need litter box changing, feedings, and a good play session. If your senior has a pet, they will gain a therapeutic benefit by being a lot more active – perhaps more than they have been in years.

Better Mental Health

According to a 2009 study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, there is a link between pet therapy and a senior’s mental health. The data noted that seniors who had pets around experienced a boost in their respiratory rates. In addition, they had less anxiety and pain and better energy. They also had improved mental health because they didn’t feel as lonely and they had a companion to share their days.

How Do Pet Visits For The Elderly Work?

Before, we talked about how owning a cat or dog can get a senior up and moving. Of course, it isn’t always advisable for all seniors to be that active, which is why you may opt for pet visits as a form of therapy.

How would these pet visits work? Here’s an overview:

Step 1: Discuss The Idea Of Pet Therapy

Get in touch with your senior’s doctor or therapist to have a conversation about enrolling your loved one in a pet therapy program. If the doctor or therapist approves, then you can proceed. If they don’t think it’s a good idea, you might want to put a pin in this one for now.

Step 2: Find A Pet For Your Senior

Next is the fun part, and that’s choosing a cat or dog your elderly parent will spend time with. Pet handlers are professionals with well-trained animals that are used for therapy purposes. The handler will come to each appointment or meeting to ensure their dog or cat behaves optimally.

You may meet with several handlers until you choose a pet you think suits your senior’s personality and needs best. The handler should have a pet therapy certification. To get this certification, the cat or dog will be required to undergo a temperament assessment, obedience training, and a physical exam to ensure they’re in the best health.

Step 3: Plan For Goals

With your pet chosen, you will want to speak with your senior’s doctor or therapist again to discuss the goals of the pet therapy. Is it to lower the senior’s cholesterol, get them more exercise, reduce their loneliness, or improve their mental health? Whatever the goal, the doctor or therapist will lay out a plan. This plan acts as a roadmap.

Step 4: Have The Initial Meeting

From there, you can introduce your senior to the cat or dog. They may see the therapy pet several times a week or even daily depending on the arrangement between you, the doctor, therapist, and the pet handler.

During this time, you will be in touch with the above parties frequently to ensure the pet therapy is progressing as expected.

Can Robotic Pets Help For Dementia?

If, by chance, you can’t get a real pet for your senior, you’re not necessarily out of options. Surprisingly, research has found that robotic pets provide many of the same benefits we discussed earlier, such as lessening depression, loneliness, and anxiety. They’re also perfect for seniors who have dementia because they’re not real.

Dementia can take a major toll on the life of a senior as well as on the lives of those around them. They can forget things like whether or not they’ve eaten that day or who they are, so they should not be given the responsibility of taking care of a pet. Robotic pets don’t need to be fed or given water, though. They never have to go to the bathroom, so your senior doesn’t have to walk them and risk forgetting where they live and end up lost.

Further, robotic pets are at no risk of developing diseases, playing too roughly, scratching, biting, or otherwise hurting your senior. They also don’t need vet visits, so they’re not a financial burden.

These cute faux pets look like the real deal, and they’re not toys. Artificial intelligence programming means that some, like the puppy from Ageless Innovation, will respond to voices, can open and close their mouth and bark, will move their head and body at your touch, blink, and even have their own heartbeat!

As you can see in the image above, Ageless Innovation also has an adorable cat for seniors who prefer them.

These faux kitties  respond to petting and hugging with a rumbling purr that you can feel. They open and close their mouths and can lift a paw, move their head and body, and can blink. Their fur is brushable, which adds to the experience. You even have a choice of colors – silver/gray, orange tabby, black and white, or creamy white.

Visiting Dogs In Nursing Homes

Some dog owners with big hearts and some time to devote will come to nursing homes and bring their dog for a visit. According to dog-walking service Wag, these dogs must exhibit certain qualities. Among them are:

  • The ability to remain still for long periods
  • Remaining calm, even at sudden smells, sounds, and sights
  • Strong understanding of commands
  • A background that excludes any biting incidents
  • A love for people

While these visits aren’t often a part of animal-assisted therapy, a person taking a dog to a nursing home once a week or a/month can still bring an immense sense of joy to seniors. Depending on the extent of the visit, it’s even possible for those in the nursing home to reap some of the benefits we talked about.

Are There Any Disadvantages Of Animal Assisted Therapy?

With all the benefits we have laid out thus far, you may wonder are there any disadvantages of animal assisted therapy? Potentially, yes, but these downsides will depend on the senior in question.

Here are some things you must look out for if you’re considering pet therapy for an elderly parent or loved one:

  • If a senior has an allergy to cat or dog dander, then pet therapy may do more harm than good. In such a situation, you’re probably better off using a robotic pet, as it has no dander.
  • Some seniors with compromised immune systems shouldn’t be exposed to animals.
  • The same goes for seniors on certain medications, as well as those who are undergoing medical treatments like radiation, and those who have certain illnesses.
  • Unfortunately, some elderly patients may have a history of combativeness and violence, especially if they have dementia or other mental health issues. These seniors probably shouldn’t participate in animal therapy or, if they do, they should not be left alone with the animal.
  • Some seniors may also harbor a fear of animals or even a dislike for them. In such a situation, no form of animal-assisted therapy would really fit.

Conclusion

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, uses dogs or cats to improve a senior’s physical, mental, and emotional health. The senior may own this pet or a professional pet handler may bring them to the person’s home or even to a senior’s nursing home.

If a live pet is not ideal, robotic pets can make a great alternative. These are especially good for dementia patients.

While not suitable for everyone, pet therapy can provide your senior with a lot of happiness, so it’s certainly worth looking into.

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