- Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) encourages physical and mental activity.
- AAT increases positive emotions and decreases negative behaviors.
- AAT provides seniors with a locus of control.
Psychology Today defines animal-assisted therapy as:
A therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals, such as horses, dogs, cats, and birds, into the treatment plan. The client, therapist, and animal work together in therapeutic activities that are outlined in a treatment plan, with clear goals for change, measurable objectives, and the expectation of identifiable progress toward the treatment goals.
Research suggests that animal-assisted therapy can positively impact the quality of life of the elderly. This is particularly relevant for those living alone or in long-term care facilities.
When considering animal-assisted therapy for seniors, it’s important to assess factors such as cost, animal behavior, training, allergies, other health factors, the risk of falling, and other safety concerns. When appropriate (such as for seniors with serious illnesses or living in a long-term care facility), have the animal screened and approved by a professional veterinarian. Work with someone who is Animal-Assisted Therapy certified or obtain the certification yourself.
Here are seven benefits of animal-assisted therapy for seniors, with references from my book How to Communicate Effectively with Seniors.
1. Increase Physical Activity–Whether walking around the block with a dog, playing (i.e., stick with a dog or string with a cat), feeding and brushing, or petting and cuddling, interactions with animals encourage greater mobility and reflex and reduce sluggishness.
2. Increase Mental Activity–Animal-assisted therapy can encourage mental acuity and problem-solving skills, such as teaching a dog a new trick or a new act of obedience.
3. Increase Communication–Talking to animals has psychological benefits. Communicating with animals can be amusing, cathartic, and healing. This is especially important for older adults who are quiet and/or solitary. Interacting with animals inevitably calls for some type of verbal speech. Such human-to-animal verbalization may, in turn, facilitate more human-to-human speech. For caretakers of the elderly, asking friendly questions about their pets can be a great conversation starter.
4. Increase Positive & Decrease Negative Emotions–The emotional benefits of animal-assisted therapy are well established. AAT can increase bonding and security and decrease stress and anxiety. Interacting with animals can be a positive distraction in alleviating the elderly’s worries and discomforts.
5. Increase Affection & Decrease Loneliness–Related to the points above, a significant benefit of senior-animal interaction is the increase of emotional connectedness and decreased isolation. This can occur even with basic activities (i.e., petting a cat or dog; or feeding fish or bird). Simple interactions with animals can often bring a smile to an elderly’s face.
6. Decrease Negative Behaviors–When the pairing is suitable, the positive emotional impact of an animal may, in turn, reduce the senior’s negative expressions, such as anger, outburst, and irritation.
7. Increased Locus of Control–With a well-trained or well-behaved animal, ATT can increase the elderly’s sense of locus of control (having control over one’s life and environment) and reduce powerlessness and helplessness. This can occur with simple acts such as a dog trotting into the room or a cat meowing when their names are called. The act of feeding an animal also gives an older adult a sense of responsibility and relevance.
For tips on how to communicate successfully with seniors, see references below.
© 2022 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively with Seniors. PNCC. (2014).
Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People — 2nd Edition. PNCC. (2006).
Ni, Preston. How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions. PNCC. (2014)
Banks M., Banks W. The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Loneliness in an Elderly Population in Long-Term Care Facilities. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. (2002).
Cherniack, E., Cherniack, A. The Benefit of Pets and Animal-Assisted Therapy to the Health of Older Individuals. Curr Gerontol Geriatr Res. (2014)
Gee, N., Mueller, M., Curl, A. Psychol. Human–Animal Interaction and Older Adults: An Overview (2017)
Kingwell B., Lomdahl A., Anderson W. Presence of a Pet Dog and Human Cardiovascular Responses to Mild Mental Stress. Clin Autonom Res. (2001).