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A patient at Greenbrier Health Care Center holds a puppy.

Pets can bring many benefits to seniors, nursing home patients

Published on Jun 27, 2022

The American Pet Products Association (APPA) estimates Americans spent more than $123 billion on their pets in 2021. To say pets are a large part of our lives would be an understatement.

Patients living in nursing homes, whether short or long-term, may still have strong connections to their pets who might be at home still, with a relative or simply have a life-long love of animals.

No matter the patient’s connection to their pets, nursing homes generally have some guidelines on pets visiting the facility or those pets that may also call the center home. Research shows older adults can benefit greatly from regular exposure to pets, especially since pets are known to encourage activity, movement and socialization.

While the two most popular pets are dogs and cats, pets may also include parakeets, turtles, lizards, hamsters and other domesticated animals. Birds and fish are more common in nursing homes because they are low maintenance.

Benefits:

A National Poll on Healthy Aging from the University of Michigan found that 88% of pet owners say their pets help them enjoy life, and 86% said their pets make them feel loved. The poll suggests that “the majority of pet owners believe that their animals connect them to other people, provide companionship, reduce stress, help them be physically active, and cope with physical and emotional symptoms, including pain.”   

Among those who lived alone and/or reported fair or poor physical health, 72% said pets help them cope with physical or emotional symptoms. Two in five of those who live alone (43%) and 46% of those in fair or poor physical health reported that their pets help take their mind off the pain.

Other recorded benefits for seniors from pet therapy are improved mental functioning, reduced loneliness and lower reported levels of anxiety.

Pets in Nursing Homes:

Whether or not you are a pet owner, interacting with pets can have positive and healthy benefits. Researchers found that people experienced less stress when their pets were with them. Visiting pets can help reduce stress and anxiety in patients, and limited research has shown there may be a connection between having a pet and reducing pain.

There are a few ways to introduce pets to a nursing home to see how patients and employees respond. First, a family member may regularly bring their pet in for a visit. This would be a low-risk method to determine if the facility may benefit from further pet visitations or entry into pet therapy programs as a benefit for patients.

A therapy pet, most commonly dogs, are pets that go with their owners to visit a school, senior center, nursing home or other communities. Different organizations, such as the Alliance for Therapy Dogs, provide training, testing and certification.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) has programs that recognize dogs and their owners who have worked to improve the lives of people they visit and offer certifications to owners who earn the AKC Therapy Dog Title.

Finally, a nursing home can choose to have pets there as full-time residents. However, when weighing the benefits a pet could provide to patients, facilities must also consider the additional work that staff will take on when caring for the pet and that not everyone is a pet person. Some may have allergies or other negative experiences with animals.

To ensure the safety of residents, many states mandate nursing homes where animals visit or reside shall have policies in place to ensure the well-being of those residents and comply with local health ordinances. These may vary by region, state, county or municipality. Administrators interested in incorporating pets into their nursing homes should always check local laws and regulations.