The Benefits of Pet Therapy in Aged Care Facilities

It’s no secret that watching a puppy or kitten explore the world makes us happy - especially when they’re goofing around. The amount of cat videos on YouTube are a testament to that!

There’s something about animals that we humans are drawn towards. From the time we started domesticating dogs some 14,000 years ago, our furry friends have become faithful companions and even honorary family members. Nowadays, more than 63% of Australian households own a pet.

Pets offer companionship, love, and a sense of purpose, especially for people living alone. But did you know that emerging research suggests that interacting with our pets can actually boost our health and wellbeing?

Not only do our pets improve our mood and outlook, there’s also evidence that they can reduce stress and blood pressure.

For residents of aged care facilities, interaction with pets can have an enormous positive impact on their health and wellbeing. Facilities all over Australia are beginning to include pet therapy programs to boost residents’ quality of life.

Pet Therapy: A new vision for healthcare

Pet therapy (also known as animal-assisted therapy), involves using animals as a form of treatment. The goal is to improve a patient’s social, cognitive, emotional, or physical function.

Programs can involve having a resident cat or bird, or introducing a therapy dog into the facility for a visit each week, or a variety of other factors best suited to the facility and its patients.

For people in aged care facilities, pet therapy is proving to greatly increase quality of life[1]. It’s been shown to reduce tension, fatigue and confusion, and increase feelings of enthusiasm and inspiration.

Some of the other benefits of pet therapy include:

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Better communication and reminiscence
  • Unresponsive patients ‘brightening up’ when interacting with a pet
  • A motivation to move around with the pet, improving sedentary lifestyles
  • Giving patients a feeling of being ‘needed’
  • Improved motor skills due to patting movements
  • Increased sense of calm and elevated positive mood
  • Enhanced socialisation and discussion
  • Stimulated memory and cognitive functioning

Having a pet in the facility can also decrease the feeling of a sterile environment, and even perhaps make the facility a bit more like ‘home’.

What’s involved in training an animal for pet therapy?

Pets need to have a suitable disposition and undergo special training before being used in a pet therapy program.

The training may involve exposing the pet to a range of environmental stimuli with a trainer, to give the pet an understanding of how to respond appropriately.

Some pets can get overwhelmed by lots of stimuli, such as when being patted by several people at once. It’s important to ensure the pet is comfortable and confident in a variety of situations so it doesn’t panic when faced with new and unfamiliar people and places.

Animals working in pet therapy must also:

  • Be well socialised
  • Have good basic obedience skills
  • Understand how to interact with people using mobility aids (such as crutches or wheelchairs)

Pet therapy dogs in particular are known for their calm and gentle nature. They often curl up and quite happily enjoy the attention they get, much to residents’ delight.

Putting together a plan for your aged care facility

Many aged care residents used to live with a dog, cat or other animal before they moved into care. But many of them had to give up the companionship they enjoyed with their animals, which may have spanned their entire lives prior to becoming an aged care resident.

While most facilities don’t allow residents to keep a pet of their own, having a live-in pet can certainly help reduce the feeling of loss of having a pet as a companion. Cats are a popular choice in many facilities as they are mostly low maintenance and manage their own toileting.

Birds have also been shown to be of particular benefit to the mental wellbeing of dementia patients.

If having a live-in pet doesn’t suit your facility, there are many programs available that facilitate pet visits. These visits quickly become a highlight of many patients’ weeks, something to look forward to and genuinely enjoy.

Regardless of the type of pet therapy used, there’s no doubt that incorporating animals into aged care residents lives has a notably positive impact on their health and wellbeing.

Where to find more information

For more information about finding a pet therapy program for your facility, contact the team at Keystone Healthcare on 1300 547 877.

Keystone Healthcare is a leading Australian provider of safety equipment for healthcare facilities. We partner with aged care establishments and hospitals to help them reduce healthcare-acquired injury and infection.

Our range of falls prevention and pressure injury prevention equipment uses the latest advancements in preventative technology. Click here to book a complimentary assessment of your facility’s equipment needs.