Florence Nightingale wrote about pets in 1859: “A small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.” Institutions and residences that use pet therapy (also called Animal Assisted Therapy) could not agree more. When animals are included in health care, especially long-term care and nursing homes, there are some surprising physical and emotional benefits:
• Lower blood pressure and heart rate
• Reduced physical pain
• Better appetite
• Reduced loneliness and depression
• Less stress and anxiety
Research at the University of Missouri shows that regular contact with pets, usually dogs, causes the brain to release chemicals that help calm and soothe. Even a few minutes of stroking a dog results in a happier mood. (also called for the elderly and some patients with Alzheimer’s, dogs can encourage mental stimulation and socialization. Patients can pet and talk to the dogs, and ask the owners questions.
A study done in three large nursing homes (Marion R. Banks and William Banks) showed that just thirty minutes a week was enough to reduce loneliness and increase engagement with other residents. For residents who had been involved with pets earlier in their lives, the response to having pet visits was overwhelmingly positive. The study also discovered that just seeing a dog was enough to trigger memories and the residents would tell long stories about their own pets. “One male resident reflected on his hunting dogs and the pleasure he had derived from hunting raccoons with his dogs. Another resident remembered how her dog would sit at her feet and keep her company.”
Pet therapy began over thirty years ago. Today, many facilities have incorporated it into a regular routine. Some places have certified volunteers who bring trained pets to visit the residents. One assisted-living company, Silverado Senior Living has taken a more expansive approach. Co-founder Steve Winner explains, “We don’t just let pets in, we require them. Pets are an integral part of what we do.” Each Silverado facility has pets onsite, including dogs, cats, and fish…as well as chinchillas, small horses, and llamas. Residents are encouraged to help care for the animals. Winner says, "The responsibility of caring for other living beings builds self-esteem."
One benefit of having pets in a facility is the ability of the pets to help patients with dementia and Sundowner Syndrome. Because pets are non-verbal, their simple presence and acceptance of agitated patients can be soothing.
With an active Animal Assisted Therapy Program, there are benefits for staff, too. Patients who are engaged, social, and responsive after visits from pets are easier to care for. And, perhaps surprisingly, staff members feel better when they stop to pet a dog, too. At the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, Emergency Department physicians and nurses are encouraged to “Pet-a-Pooch” during their lunch and dinner breaks. Staff reported reduced stress levels, and some even adopted one of the puppies or kittens!
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