If you’ve ever been welcomed home by an excited dog, had your lap warmed by a loving cat, or turned to a cherished pet in a stressful moment, animal therapy will make perfect sense to you. Dogs and cats provide unconditional love and can immediately make people feel calmer and less stressed. Studies have shown that spending just 15 minutes bonding with an animal can produce positive hormonal changes in the brain. If you’re unable to own a pet or you don’t want to take on that responsibility right now, explore the possibility of animal therapy. You might be surprised by the many benefits of animal therapy for seniors.
Benefits of Animal Therapy for Seniors
Animal therapy is typically offered in an intimate, controlled setting. For example, some animal therapy programs make regular visits to retirement communities. While the benefits of animal therapy for seniors depend on the specifics of the program, many programs can help older adults in the following ways:
Simply interacting with animals makes many people happy, especially when they have an affinity for the specific type of animal. For example, a “dog person” will likely be thrilled at the prospect of a meet-and-greet with a golden retriever. Animal therapy has also been linked to reduced anxiety, a lower risk of depression, and less stress (source). One of the wonderful things about pets is that they don’t fully understand the world around them, so they aren’t worried about the same things you are. They’re concerned about belly rubs and snuggles, not COVID-19 or politics.
There’s a reason why dogs are known as “man’s best friend.” They make excellent companions because they listen without judgment and provide unbiased affection. If you’re having trouble talking about something with a friend or family member, try speaking to a dog or cat about it first. Seniors who regularly engage in animal therapy report reduced feelings of loneliness (source). In addition, animal therapy offers an opportunity for seniors to interact with other people and bond over their shared interest in animals.
Animal therapy can minimize several side effects of dementia. First, because people with dementia often feel isolated and lonely, they can enjoy the social benefits we just talked about. Interacting with animals also provides mental stimulation and may help someone living with dementia tap into memories of past pets. For a person who is usually withdrawn or distracted, animal therapy may increase alertness. On the other hand, it may also ease agitation and soothe those who struggle with language due to dementia. Finally, simply petting, grooming, or feeding an animal can give someone who feels aimless and unmotivated a sense of purpose and meaning (source).
If animal therapy includes walking around or playing with the animal, participants will get a little exercise and may increase their mobility as well. Additionally, animals (especially well-trained therapy animals) are known to calm and soothe many people. They may experience lower blood pressure and a stabilized heart rate as a result (source). In fact, several studies have revealed that blood pressure goes down when a person pets a dog.
So the next time a therapy dog comes to your side to ask for pets and belly rubs, indulge him! Not only will the dog appreciate it, but also you’ll enjoy some physical and mental benefits.
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