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Pet Therapy for the Elderly: How Animal Companions Support Wellbeing

pet therapy for the elderly 1Most of us know what it’s like to experience the calming effect of a beloved pet. Whether it’s hugging your dog at the end of a long day or sitting quietly and watching a beautiful tank of tropical fish, pets help us relax and they promote positive feelings. For seniors who find themselves home alone frequently, pets offer a welcome distraction that can reduce feelings of isolation, and they can reduce distress and decrease behavior problems for those with dementia. They also add variety and interest to daily routines, which can help alleviate boredom and promote mental health.

Why Pets are Good for Seniors

Studies have shown that patting or stroking dogs produces oxytocin, the hormone that promotes relationships and bonding, and promotes positive feelings by reducing anxiety and stress. Interactions with a therapy animal during a hospital stay can even decrease pain levels following a surgical procedure. Many seniors find that interacting with pets improves their quality of life, especially for those with dementia, and pet ownership may even lower the risk of heart disease by encouraging exercise and a healthy lifestyle.


Most of us don’t need behavioral studies to understand the positive influence a pet has on our lives. We instinctively know that caring for an animal and receiving its devotion in return makes us feel valuable and loved. For seniors who may not have as much interaction with friends and family as they once did, pets can fill a void by providing companionship and enrichment. If you’re not sure which pet is right for you, consider one of the following:

  • Dogs - Dogs bond with their owners and can encourage seniors to stay active. However, a young puppy may be too energetic or require too much training for an older person. Adopting an older dog from a shelter may be a better option, and it also gives you the opportunity to observe the dog’s personality before bringing it home.
  • Cats - Cats require less care than dogs, while still providing plenty of interaction and affection. For seniors who can’t get out and walk every day, a cat may be a better choice.
  • Birds - Some types of birds require very little interaction with their owners apart from feedings, and they still bring movement and life to the environment. Species like parrots and parakeets enjoy physical contact with people, but they are also louder and require more hands-on care.
  • Fish - Fish are among the easiest animals to care for once you have an aquarium established. Watching fish can lower blood pressure and reduce stress, making them a perfect addition to your home.

The Benefits of Pet Therapy for the Elderly

pet therapy for the elderlyNot every senior is capable of caring for a pet, and many would rather not have the added responsibility of pet ownership. But interacting with animals still provides benefits. Pet therapy has been successfully used in hospitals and care facilities to help people cope with illnesses and recovery from surgery. A ten-or fifteen-minute visit from a therapy animal can produce benefits such as:

  • Lower stress levels
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced pain levels

Those suffering with dementia may also experience calmer moods, fewer behavioral problems, better social interactions, fewer feelings of anxiety and sadness, and more positive emotions.

Pet Ownership Vs. Pet Therapy: Which Option Is Right for You?

Owning a pet brings with it the responsibility to feed it, provide a comfortable living environment, provide vaccinations and medical care, and ensure that it gets enough exercise. Some seniors enjoy these responsibilities, and they can help encourage seniors to stay active.

For others, however, the responsibilities of pet ownership are too strenuous. People with dementia, for example, can benefit from interactions with pets, but do not have the ability to provide reliable care every day. In these situations, pet therapy offers an ideal solution by providing the benefits of interacting with a trained therapy animal without the daily responsibility of care.

To help you determine which option is right for you, ask these questions:

  • Do I have enough money to pay for a pet’s ongoing care? Food, vet care, flea and heartworm medicine, and grooming will all take a toll on your wallet. Be sure your income can support the long-term care of an animal.

  • What happens when I can no longer care for the pet? If you get an animal who lives for a long time such as a dog or cat, it’s possible that your health may decline to the point where you are unable to care for it. Talk to family members or friends about who could assume care for the animal if that happens.

  • Are those close to me supportive of the idea of pet ownership? Your close family members and caregivers know you best and may be more objective, so it’s wise to listen to their thoughts about whether adopting a pet is the right decision.

  • Could the animal present a fall risk? If walking is difficult or you are unsteady on your feet, a rambunctious dog may not be the best choice for an animal companion.

  • Do I really love the idea of owning and caring for a pet, or do I just enjoy interacting with an animal and then saying goodbye? Not everyone is cut out for pet ownership. If you would rather not deal with the potential mess and responsibility of caring for an animal, pet therapy may be a better choice.

If pet therapy appeals to you, you can find more information from organizations that offer pet therapy resources in Ohio, including:  

Animals bring joy to our lives in many different ways. As you endeavor to provide a vibrant quality of life for yourself or your senior loved one, pets and therapy animals may be an option that will promote mental health and overall wellbeing for years to come.

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