12 March 2023

Pet therapy for the elderly

12 min read

Having a pet is one of life’s greatest joys. Pets bring happiness, fun and a true sense of love and family to people. Not only do they offer companionship, but research suggests that they can also boost your health and general wellbeing. In most cases, aged care residences don’t encourage residents to keep their own pets, but facilitate interaction through regular pet visitation.


What is pet therapy?

Pet therapy, also called animal-assisted therapy (AAT), involves interacting with trained animals under the guidance of a handler to improve a person's health. Therapy animals, often dogs and cats, serve to provide comfort and companionship. Studies show that petting a friendly animal can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and even ease pain.

Pet therapy can be used in aged care homes, hospitals and even schools.

Programs range from informal social visits with therapy animals simply visiting to structured therapy for mental health help, guided by a therapist. Home might even have resident therapy pets.


What is pet therapy for the elderly?

Many Estia Health homes across New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria receive regular visits from animals to help improve mood, increase happiness and address loneliness. We also regularly have zoo visits, and some of our homes even have small hatcheries for chickens, where the residents can watch and tend to the baby chickens.

We also have trained dogs and volunteers from several companies who regularly visit our homes. The residents absolutely love it; some have a huge affinity for the gorgeous felines and others adore cuddles and kisses from the affectionate dogs.


What type of pets are used in pet therapy?

A variety of pets can be used in pet therapy, such as dogs, cats, horses and even robotic animals.


Dogs in aged care

The most common therapy animal is dogs. Dogs visit both aged care residences, hospitals and hospices. They have a calm, friendly and affectionate nature, are obedient and can easily adapt to new noises, places, smells and equipment.


Cats in aged care

Therapy cats are very calm and tolerant around people, dogs and other animals. They are accustomed to being handled and held frequently by different people. Therapy cats also easily adapt to the sight and sounds of medical equipment, wheelchairs and unfamiliar noises.


Horses in aged care

Quarter horses have the ideal temperament for working in therapeutic riding programs. They are calm, even-tempered and friendly. Horses are a great aid in mental health and can comfort those dealing with difficult emotions.


Robotic pets in aged care

Lifelike robotic pets are typically used for residents living with dementia. They feature built-in sensors that allow them to respond to your touch and movement. They'll blink, nod their heads, twitch their mouths and even produce realistic sounds, making them feel almost like the real thing. Whilst not a replacement for a real animal, they are an effective alternative when a resident living with dementia is no longer able to interact with a real animal.


What are the benefits of pet therapy in aged care?

Social isolation and loneliness can be significant challenges for older people in aged care. Pet therapy offers a unique and robust solution, bringing a wave of emotional and physical benefits to their lives. Here's how interacting with therapy animals can make a positive impact:

  • Combats loneliness and depression: Therapy animals provide companionship, reducing feelings of isolation. Interaction triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone linked to bonding and improved mood.
  • Boosts emotional wellbeing: Petting a furry friend can significantly decrease anxiety and create a sense of calm.
  • Improves physical health: Simple interactions lower blood pressure and heart rate. Engaging with playful animals can motivate residents to become more physically active.

Sparks joy and purpose: Some residences have a shared pet. Residents may find renewed responsibility by helping to care for animals. These positive interactions create happy memories and can even stimulate cognitive function in those with dementia.


Evidence-based care: Studies on pet therapy for older people

The power of pet therapy shines in its positive impact on those in aged care homes and individuals with dementia.

A 2016 study published in Dementia found that elderly residents in care homes who interacted with therapy dogs experienced a significant decrease in loneliness and depression scores.

Research by BMC Psychiatry suggests that pet therapy promotes social interaction and reduces feelings of isolation, offering emotional support that combats depression in aged care settings.

And finally, a 2010 study in the Journal of Psychogeriatrics found that therapy animals motivated dementia patients to become more engaged with their surroundings. The playful nature of pets sparked joy and encouraged participation in activities.


Pets at Estia Health

The science is clear — pet therapy has countless benefits for residents in aged care. From combating loneliness to boosting emotional wellbeing and even improving physical health, therapy animals introduce positive change. It isn't just about cuddles — it's about rekindling joy, sparking memories and offering residents a sense of purpose.

Thankfully, pet therapy is becoming more widely used throughout aged care homes. Animal visits are one way Estia Health aims to enrich and celebrate our resident’s lives. Call us at 1300 682 833 for more on how we use pets at Estia Health for holistic health purposes.