Tag Archives: Companion Animals

Health Benefits of Pet Ownership for Seniors

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.

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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.

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Fighting Loneliness – Pet Therapy for the Elderly

For many, retirement and old age is a welcome stage of life with few responsibilities, and a lot of time to pursue interests. To others, it brings on that dreaded feeling which no amount of pills and doctor appointments can cure – loneliness. According to AARP, over a third of Americans over 45 years are lonely. Retirement, decreased mobility and income source are all contributing factors to increased social isolation. Studies show that loneliness puts the individual in greater risk of diseases and illness, and greatly impacts their well-being and quality of life.

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A variety of interventions are in place to combat loneliness in the geriatric population. They focus on various high risk groups and employ various individual and group approaches. There are also several programs in place, including social and cultural outings, health promotion, community engagement and group support. However, few show direct improvement in reducing loneliness among the elderly. A study comparing eighteen different interventions in Netherlands concluded that only two of them significantly reduced loneliness – one, an individual, at-home intervention for the elderly with chronic disease, and two, a group intervention in a residential home that included discussion and coffee breaks. There is limited success in identifying and employing interventions that significantly reduce loneliness

Another lesser known intervention to battle loneliness is the use of companion animals. Pet ownership and interaction positively contribute to the overall wellbeing of elderly citizens as pets can instil a sense of responsibility and purpose in the elderly, and provide much solace from loneliness. The role of Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is increasingly being explored in elderly care. AAT is a formal, documented process with scheduled sessions and a treatment goal. AAT most commonly uses dogs, but is not restricted to fish, rabbits, cats, horses and dolphins. AAT should not be confused with service animals, and animal-assisted activities (AAA). Service animals and AAA are more spontaneous and do not necessarily have a treatment goal. Both AAT and AAA can help in increasing social behaviors, interaction with people as well and decreasing loneliness among the elderly.

In addition to temporary animal companionship, several organizations also look to provide seniors with the opportunity of pet ownership. The ‘Seniors for Seniors’ program is employed among many non-profits and animal shelters across the United States. This program looks to place adult dogs and cats with willing and able senior citizens. Since older dogs are usually house-broken, trained, and come with a fully developed personality, they can serve as great companions to the elderly.Several animal welfare organizations such as SAVE, Paws and the North Shore Animal League America successfully run such a program, often providing financial and other support to senior adopters. Pets for the Elderly Foundation, is a non-profit solely focused to this cause. It provides financial support to adoption centers around the United States that place dogs and cats with senior citizens.

Animal therapy, in all its forms, is a burgeoning field of study in geriatric care. There are only a handful of scientific studies documenting the efficacy of AAT on loneliness, but current research shows positive trends. Despite the challenges of working with animals, the therapeutic role companion animals can play in fighting loneliness is promising.

Namratha Rao is currently pursuing her MSPH in International Health in Social and Behavioral Interventions at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.