What Is Pet Therapy for Seniors?

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man and woman smiling and walking dog outside
Whether it’s the traditional joys of cuddling up with a cat or dog, something a bit more offbeat like snuggling a rabbit, or even the eccentric joy of watching a tarantula or playing with a pet snake, pets make our lives better. After all, animals are an important part of our world. The pets we love help connect us to the natural world and the parts of ourselves we might otherwise forget. Pet therapy for seniors includes a wide range of practices, both formal and informal, from snuggling with your favorite pet to having structured interactions with a therapy animal. If you like animals, there’s a way to incorporate them into your life. Knowing the benefits of pet therapy might inspire you to adopt a companion or volunteer at your local animal rescue, all while committing to your well-being. It’s a win for both you and the animal! Here’s what you need to know about pet therapy for seniors and why everyone can benefit:  

What Is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy can mean many different things. Although not necessarily a formal method of medical support, “pet therapy” typically refers to any emotional or physical benefits one receives from interacting with domesticated animals. This holistic approach to wellness is certainly still a valid form of care, especially for those with disabilities. Pet therapy is available in various forms, including:
  • Animal-assisted psychotherapy: Some therapists use animals to ease their clients’ anxiety or to make treatment more engaging.
  • Animal-assisted physical therapy: A dog can help you in physical therapy, working alongside you or serving as a supportive companion.
  • Therapy animal visits: Therapy animals visit people in senior living communities, hospitals and even at home to lift their spirits, offer support and provide affection.
  • Emotional support animal: An emotional support animal is a pet you choose to improve your well-being. You might get a dog to ease loneliness or a cat to help with anxiety, for example.
  • Specially trained pets: Guide dogs, seizure-alert dogs and other animals are trained to perform specific tasks to support their owners. You might be surprised to learn the many things animals can learn to do and how many animals can be trained to assist.

The Importance of Relationships

Exercise, diet and regular visits to a doctor you trust are all essential components of long-term health. But research has shown that the most important factor is your relationships. A rich array of social connections can help you live a longer, healthier, more joyful life. Compared to peers, people with rich social connections live longer, have fewer health issues and even make more money. Pets offer social connections too. Your relationship with your dog, cat or other animal companion can be as important as other relationships and offer significant health benefits. Pets may even help foster social connections. They encourage you to get out and meet people, providing an easy icebreaker. Who doesn’t love chatting with another dog lover about their beloved puppy?  

The Many Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors

Spending time with animals offers many benefits. For example, petting a dog can lower blood pressure immediately. Additionally, research consistently shows dog owners have lower blood pressure. Some other benefits of interacting with and owning pets include:
  • Lower stress and decreased stress-related ailments.
  • Reduced loneliness and isolation, both because of the relationship with the pet and because pets can help you connect with others.
  • Healthy triglyceride and cholesterol numbers.
  • An incentive to stay physically and socially active.
  • A chance to indulge in new hobbies, such as joining a frisbee team with your dog or heading to a cat or reptile meet-up. Pets can inspire you to do the things you’ve always loved or explore new hobbies.
  • Fun! If you love animals, then you’ll love spending time with them. Everyone needs and deserves more fun in their life.
In therapeutic settings, animals can make challenging work feel less overwhelming. Visits from therapy animals can invigorate a person’s spirits and potentially inspire them to reap more benefits by getting a pet of their own.  

Incorporating Pet Therapy Into Your Life

Adopting a pet is a great way to incorporate pet therapy into your life. The satisfaction of improving a fellow being’s life may compound the benefits of pet ownership, giving you a deeper sense of purpose. Remember also that dogs and cats aren’t the only options. Small mammals can make for excellent pets, with a variety of choices from rabbits to hamsters to domesticated rats. Furthermore, reptiles and birds are highly intelligent and fascinating to learn about. And although a spider might not be cute or cuddly, it can be interesting and engaging. Jumping spiders are having a moment on social media, and some rival mammals with their cuteness. Always keep in mind that every pet, no matter the species, requires research and regular care. If pet ownership feels like too much, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy more time with animals and incorporate pet therapy into your life:
  • Consider fostering an animal. This is a great way to experiment with pet ownership, especially if you’re on the fence.
  • Plan frequent visits with friends and family who have pets.
  • Offer to pet-sit for a loved one.
  • Visit a therapy animal or volunteer to work with a therapy animal organization.
  • Look into pet-assisted therapy options if desired.
  • Volunteer at your local animal rescue or wildlife rehabilitation center. The United Way offers a nationwide volunteer search tool that can help you find the perfect animal volunteer opportunity for your lifestyle.

Pet-Friendly Senior Living Communities

A pet-friendly senior living community can help you enjoy more time with animals, whether you visit a neighbor’s beloved fluffball or adopt one of your own. The right community makes forging new relationships — with both animals and humans — easy and fun. These social connections, human or otherwise, are vital for maintaining wellness and a high quality of life. Recent research suggests that the single most important determinant of well-being and longevity is social fitness.