The Effectiveness of Therapy Animals for Seniors
Animals and humans have been companions for centuries. We love them for their unconditional love and companionship; they love us for the security and love (and treats!) we provide. Studies prove that people who are emotionally attached to an animal are more relaxed and are better able to cope with stress. Pet owners feel needed because they are responsible for the welfare of another living creature. Dogs, cats, birds— even reptiles— are common companion animals. Some people become attached to their livestock, falling for cows, horses, pigs, sheep, and other farm animals. The common denominator is the positive benefits that arise when animals are involved in our lives.
Companion animals’ benefits don’t just extend to their owners. Animals frequently are trained to be of service to a certain population, the understanding being that interaction between animals and people needing a lift provides numerous benefits. The elderly are one such population that benefits from interactions with animals. Specially trained therapy animals provide benefits that no medicine can deliver: companionship, love, and hope, among other things.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, notes that studies have documented the many benefits of being around animals. Dr. Weil notes that pet owners and those who are around animals have lower instances of loneliness. How?
He writes: “A survey by the American Veterinary Association found that nearly 50 percent of respondents considered their pets to be companions, while only two percent thought of them as property. And a Purdue researcher found that 97 percent of respondents talk to their pets.” Simply having an animal to talk to is akin to having a therapist, it seems.
It's human nature to want to be close to someone, to feel needed and loved. Often, however, people do not have access to social events or are unable to get out as often as they would like. This inability to interact breeds feelings of loneliness and isolation. Therapy animals are an easy way to provide companionship and love to those that need it most— and these four-legged counselors only ask for the occasional treat and belly rub!
A Healthy Relationship
Therapy animals provide benefits well beyond the abstract. These companions also give numerous physiological benefits to those who are around them. The National Park Service (NPS), in its brochure “The Health Benefits of Companion Animals,” notes several of these health benefits.
Among other benefits, therapy animals provide a “greater reduction of cardiovascular stress” in comparison to being with friends or spouses. In addition, they decrease pulse rates, raise skin temperature, and relax muscle tension in elderly people. The hormones associated with happiness and well-being, dopamine and endorphins, are enhanced when interactions with therapy animals are allowed.
Still other studies, the NPS continues, show that therapy animals enhance immune functions, resulting in fewer allergies (yes, FEWER allergies!), protection against adult asthma, and less illness and lowered susceptibility to upper respiratory infections.
Old Feels New
But what are the effects from animal companions on our elderly population? What benefits can seniors derive from their presence? In a report chronicling the benefits of animals companions, 2ndchance4pets.org details just how positive interactions between animals and senior can be.
“One analysis, conducted in 1990, evaluated 938 Medicare enrollees for one year. The study showed that respondents who owned pets reported fewer doctor visits and less difficulty coping with stressful life-events than those who didn’t have companion animals. The benefits of pet ownership on human health and behavior were also shown in a one-year study in 1998 of 1,000 non-institutionalized adults over 65 years of age.”
Pets bring us joy and laughter. They also bring us a sense of being needed, enabling us to feel important and wanted. Our well-being, both physically and mentally, benefits from these things that pets bring to the table. Therapy animals are also capable of enhancing our health. Our senior population benefits immensely from this interaction, and, in return, we benefit from taking care of those who first took care of us, and their animal friends.