The Benefits of Pet Therapy in
Assisted Living Communities

May 23, 2018 | Blog

Pets enrich our lives and make us feel better. In fact,  a scientific study shows that it only takes fifteen minutes of petting or playing with a pet to set off a chemical chain reaction that lowers cortisol, a stress hormone, and increases serotonin, a feel-good hormone. Surprisingly, you don’t even have to touch a pet to get the soothing effects of an animal. Simply looking at a pet can cause your body to release oxytocin, a powerful feel-good neurochemical that causes feelings of joy. With such great benefits, it’s no wonder that many assisted living communities are bringing in animals to interact with residents.

Pet therapy can take on many forms in assisted living communities. Some communities have communal pets that live in the community, while others allow employees to bring friendly pets to work with them. There are even a few communities that allow residents to have their own pets. But for the majority of people living in an assisted living community, pet therapy is their only opportunity to interact with a typical house pet like a dog or cat.

However, pet therapy in assisted living doesn’t limit itself to a typical house pet. Oftentimes assisted living communities will bring in other animals, such as miniature horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds and even reptiles to play with residents. Pet therapy is typically a scheduled and organized recreational activity for everyone in the community to be enjoyed as a group, but may also be set up as an individual visit in a resident’s room or apartment.

What is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy, also called animal-assisted therapy, is a general term that includes animal-assisted activities and therapy. Pet therapy animals help people cope with or recover from health challenges, such as heart disease, mental health disorders and cancer. Animal-assisted activities, such as those seen on assisting living community calendars, provide comfort and enjoyment, plus many other health benefits.

Benefits of Pet Therapy

Let’s dig into the immediate benefits of pet therapy for assisted living residents:

  • Lowers heart rate
  • Lowers blood pressure – research at the State University of New York found that blood pressure response to stress was cut in half when petting an animal
  • Lowers stress levels
  • Eases chronic pain due to the release of endorphins
  • Reduced loneliness
  • Lifts spirits
  • Decreases feelings of isolation and alienation
  • Reduces boredom
  • Provides comfort

When pet and human interactions occur over extended periods of time, the following benefits have been shown:

  • Lowered triglyceride and cholesterol levels
  • Reduced depression
  • Protection against heart disease and stroke

Several studies have determined that heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those who don’t own a pet.

Why is Pet Therapy So Beneficial?

Many studies show that people who interact with pets have higher levels of self-esteem and have better overall well-being when compared to their non-pet owning counterparts because pets, particularly dogs, promote feelings of competence, autonomy and therapeutic/psychological well-being.

Older individuals often experience loneliness and have feelings of insecurity, especially if they don’t participate in as many activities as they once did. Therapy animals, especially dogs, connect with humans in very special ways, often pulling withdrawn individuals out of their shells, helping them be more communicative and happier.

Residents look forward to an animal’s visit and cherish the time spent with the animal. Animals give them something positive to focus on rather than the negative and depressive thoughts some find themselves facing and dwelling upon. The animal provides unconditional acceptance and affection encouraging a person dealing with negative feelings to feel good about themselves and their world.

Pets make great companions to older adults, especially someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia. Being very intuitive, animals often form a special connection with people who have dementia. Numerous studies have shown the presence of an animal in the home reduces many of the behavioral problems associated with dementia such as irritability, agitation, anxiety, depression and loneliness. Pets also help people with dementia be more interactive and social, even those who haven’t been able to do so in previous social settings with other adults and those who are non-verbal.

Pet therapy has been found to decrease the agitation associated with sundowner’s syndrome, as well. The animal’s non-verbal communication and unconditional, profound acceptance is especially soothing for someone who has difficulty expressing themselves.

Organizations exist with resources for families who want to find a companion animal for someone with Alzheimer’s: Pet Partners, Pets for the Elderly Foundation and Therapy Dogs,

For all these reasons and more, therapy animals are being utilized more and more frequently for therapeutic purposes in assisted living communities. These amazing animals promote health and healing for those dealing with any number of health conditions.

Understanding these benefits, many communities are starting to include pet therapy in their regular programming or are bringing pets into their communities on a permanent basis to be enjoyed anytime day or night.

Apparently when therapy goes to the dogs, everyone benefits! If you want to know more, contact us here at The Brielle. Pet Therapy is just one of the many ways we provide memory care and assisted living with compassion.