As most pet owners already know, our pets are best friends and considered part of our families. Especially in nursing homes where the elderly suffer from depression, loneliness, and lack of social contacts, pets can be very therapeutic, improve the quality of life, and alleviate emotional and physical problems. Research has shown that stroking and even talking to a pet lowers one’s blood pressure and heart rate which can lead to an increase in life expectancy. When a person is stroking a pet, a chemical reaction takes places and a high level of mood enhancing hormones, such as serotonin, prolactin and oxyctocin is produced, while less stress hormones are released.
In the US, pet therapies, also called animal-assisted therapies, are very common and popular in nursing homes. Owning a pet might not be for everyone because of the many responsibilities that come with a pet ownership. Pet therapy allows the elderly to spend time with a pet, usually a dog, and feel closeness. In addition, the elderly have something to look forward to and feel that they have a purpose in life again. While pets in nursing homes can ameliorate the psychological state of mind, they also contribute to an improved physical health of the elderly such as reduced need for medication and improved vital signs. The elderly who take their dog for a walk prove to have improved mobility, more social interactions, and enjoy their daily exercise routine. It has been researched that older pet owners walk significantly farther when they walk with a dog, which can contribute to the fact that pet owners require fewer doctor visits.
The European Union understands the importance of pet ownership for the elderly. As part of the Europe 2020 Initiatives, a new campaign was launched to promote the benefits of pets for the elderly. The motto is called “Animals are good for us, be good to them. We care.” IFAH Europe, the International Federation for Animal Health Europe, started a Facebook page where anyone can get information on how to care for pets. The elderly are also asked to post personal videos about how they enjoy their lives with a pet. This campaign promotes the benefits of pets for the elderly and may raise awareness of the elderly’s emotional needs.
In Romania, pet therapies are just as common, but dogs used for pet therapy have a different story to tell; they are street dogs. Bucharest, the capital of Romania, has more than tens of thousands of street dogs. The dogs have always been seen as a plague and had a bad reputation due to a few fatal incidents with city residents. After a 4 year-old boy was killed by a street dog in 2013, a law was published stating that street dogs will be euthanized unless they have a home. As a response to the law and a vision to save the dogs and give back to the community, the organization Vier Pfoten started a project and trains street dogs to be used for pet therapy in nursing homes. What a great idea to save street dogs in Bucharest as well as give comfort and companionship to elderly!
Martina Lesperance is a Health Educator and Screening Technician in El Paso, Texas.