There is an intrinsic connection between human beings and animals. During the course of our lives many of us experience the love of a wonderful pet. When a person is placed in long term care, often the family pet must be left behind. This can be experienced as another loss and often results in additional anxiety and increased difficulty adapting to the new environment for the resident. Ongoing research indicates that having a pet can be beneficial for a person’s general health and well-being. Pets can help diminish feelings of loneliness and isolation and encourage people to be more active, participate in therapy and provide a purpose in life as we age. In the event that the beloved pet cannot come to live with the resident, regular visits should be encouraged.
Of course, communities must maintain the safety and health of all residents so policies must be in place to ensure that the visiting pet has appropriate inoculations, shots, etc. and does not exhibit threatening behavior towards others. There are also many organizations that will provide pet therapy visits to long term care centers and these entities have stringent guidelines on the type of animal that will make the visits. Usually visits are made by trained handlers using dogs and cats, but there are many other types of animals that can be used. Many facilities now have bird aviaries and fish tanks to keep residents entertained. So, what are the benefits associated with “pet therapy”……………..
• Socialization: Often residents are unwilling to share their thoughts and feelings with caregiving staff and at times, even with family members. Pets offer unconditional love and acceptance and will “listen” without making judgments! Since most folks love pets it also breaks the ice and will generate friendly conversation for increased socialization opportunities. Research indicates that people with pets engage in more frequent conversations then those who do not.
• Improved Mood and Behavior: Residents who symptoms of depression and withdrawal have been shown to significantly benefit from visits with pets. Not only does the resident look forward to the visits but they tend to maintain an improved sense of belonging demonstrating increased motivation to participate in facility activities, including therapy. Many facilities allow pets to be used directly in the provision of therapy services!!
• Benefits to overall Health: Residents who are able to participate in pet therapy or have their personal pet visit regularly have been noted to have decreased blood pressure. Stroking a pet has also been noted to produce increased levels of serotonin, providing an elevated feeling of wellbeing and happiness!
Earlier in my career I was able to experience the ultimate in pet therapy! The rural long term care facility that I worked in had admitted a resident who had been a farmer all his life. He also raised horses and had done so right up to the day of his hospitalization. It was not possible for him to go home again so the facility became his “new home”. He was very depressed and not adjusting well having been so independent all his life and had made numerous comments about how he missed his horses. The facilities activity department went to great lengths to have his prize horse brought to the facility for a “visit”! The look on this resident’s face was priceless and afterwards his overall demeanor and satisfaction increased exponentially. It was certainly an act of dedication on the part of this facility to ensure this resident’s individual needs were met by not underestimating the power of pets!

Cherie Rowell, COTA
Director of Clinical Services
Functional Pathways
crowell@fprehab.com