An Overview of Animal Therapy and Its Benefits to Elderly Patients

Animal therapy is separated into two categories; animal-assisted therapy and animal assisted activity. Animal-assisted activity generally refers to social visits and interactions with animals. It often involves games or simple socializing (petting, brushing, feeding, etc.) with the animal, intended to improve the quality of life for the patient. Animal-assisted therapy, on the other hand, involves goal-directed animal-human interactions for specific therapeutic gains (Chandler). Animal therapy usually conforms to something like the following; an animal owner or handler, one or more small animals specially socialized that have a strong bond with the handler, a cooperating hospital or facility in which patients are allowed and urged to interact with the animals.

Alternatively, there are facilities that have one or more resident pets. Animal therapy has been tried with many different ages suffering from many different ailments, but there is particular interest in the topic of animals with the elderly (Fine).

The bond between humans and animals is not entirely explained, but studies have shown that there are a plethora of physical benefits to shared interactions.

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Human to animal interaction provides visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimulation. This provides not only a distraction, but is directly linked to beneficial chemical processes in the brain. For example, quietly petting a sleeping dog improves the release of oxytocin, prolactin, beta-endorphin, dopamine, and cortisol. These are all effective in maintaining balanced blood sugar, balanced heart rate, and in preventing clinical depression (Chandler). These benefits can be found in any soothing interaction with a soft, warm, well-socialized animals.

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Dogs are the most popular therapy animal, but cats are a close second. Cats offer a unique advantage and that is their purr. Practically everyone knows that cats tend to purr when they are content, but they also purr when they are scared or injured. This is because the purr of cats actually has healing properties. Cats create vibrations between 20 and 140 Hertz, which is known to be therapeutic to many ailments and conditions. A few of these benefits include lowered stress, decreased symptoms of dyspnea (shortness of breath), lowered blood pressure, strengthening of bones, and lowered risk of heart attack (American Human Association). Another physical health benefit of interaction with animals is exercise. Although it may not seem like much, actively playing with, walking, or even simply grooming an animal can provide exercise for patients who are elderly, or healing from an illness or injury that requires them to often be sedentary.

All of the aforementioned benefits are critically helpful to the elderly. Many senior citizens live days filled with confusion and loneliness, as a result of memory loss, living in sometimes relatively sterile settings, and often having few family and friends remaining with whom they can maintain a connection (Smith). Therapy animals present a golden opportunity for seniors to receive the physical affection their lives often lack. Not only does animal therapy directly benefit the elderly patients, but studies have shown that is also often results in increased social interaction with their peers. Interaction with therapy animals not only increases social interaction, offers physical health benefits, and allows for stimulation, it also improves the patient’s overall state of mind.

Patients often report ‘liking’ or ‘loving’ or ‘enjoying’ the animal, confidence in themselves for being able to connect with the animal, recalling fond memories of relationships they used to have with pets of their own, and a welcome break from a tedious daily routine (Chandler). Many elderly citizens feel anxiety and reluctance to leave their home for an assisted-living facility and one of the top reasons they give is wanting to keep their pets. Particularly in cases of parents with little interaction with their children and with widows and widowers, the attachment to pets often wins over the need for help (Fine).

Animal therapy has been rapidly growing in popularity in the last twenty years. As more studies are done that illustrate the many benefits of interactions and relationships with animals, more facilities allow animals to reside and visit. Although in some situations it is required that the animal has specific training, there are many cases where a naturally well behaved animal is welcomed into a facility. The relationship shared between a human and an animal, especially is cases when the human is ill, lonely, or medically and psychologically limited, offer immeasurable benefits.

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An Overview of Animal Therapy and Its Benefits to Elderly Patients. (2022, Oct 25). Retrieved from

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