Reasons for using Pets as Therapy
For centuries there has been a special bond between people and animals as they offer comfort, loyalty and companionship. Scientific research has proved that stroking a cat or dog, for as little as 15 minutes, increases a person’s emotional well-being and quality of life while reducing feelings of stress.
What is pet therapy?
Pet therapy involves the use of an animal to provide affection and companionship in nursing homes, retirement homes, rehabilitation facilities and hospices.
Most therapy pets take part in regular visiting programmes, whilst others are involved in more structured activities as part of a therapeutic programme.
An animal’s natural ability to promote physical and emotional healing make them the perfect companion for someone who lives alone, and the ideal visitor for someone who lives in a place where they are unable to keep pets.
Popular animals for pet therapy
Dogs are the most popular choice of therapy pet as they are naturally intelligent and intuitive to a person’s needs – with the added benefit of fitting snuggly on someone’s lap.
But, any animal can become a therapy pet; it depends on who they will be visiting and what characteristics they have.
- Cats are perfect for people who are afraid of bigger animals. In some nursing homes you will see a cat visitor roaming from room to room, stopping for numerous cuddles on their journey.
- Larger animals such as alpacas and donkeys offer a complete distraction for anyone who may be prone to anger, restlessness or abuse.
- Equine therapy, sometimes referred to as hippotherapy, benefits the elderly greatly as riding a horse provides a support base for balance problems and poor posture, and increases flexibility. The rhythmic movement is also very relaxing.
- Smaller animals, such as guinea pigs and rabbits are easy to care for, comforting and work out the muscles in elderly hands and arms when repeatedly stroked.
- Parrots have a high level of empathy and will react to a human voice. As they can be taught words and phrases, these can be the perfect companion for someone who is struggling with their speech. Plus, they are a great source of amusement!
- Simply sitting and watching fish swim peacefully in a tank is extremely relaxing and the act of setting up a fish tank with colourful fish and ornaments can spark creativity.
The power of the hen
But, it’s not always about comfort, relaxation and communication. Equal Arts are the brains behind HenPower. This project is active in more than 40 care homes across the UK, allowing its elderly residents to keep hens to help reduce depression and loneliness while increasing ‘henergy’.
The idea for HenPower was formed using the experiences of staff in a residential care home who recognised the value of routine, especially for the residents with dementia. Feeding hens in the morning, collecting eggs during the day and making sure they are tucked up in their hen-house in the evening provides people with dementia with a comforting daily routine with purpose.
Many activities carried out in care homes are craft-based, which mainly appeal to the female residents. HenPower appeals to the older men who take a lead in the caring of the hens.
Therapy dogs for people living with dementia
Dogs make the perfect holistic treatment for people with dementia due to their characteristics, caring nature and intelligence. 
- Feeding, grooming and walking provides a much-needed daily routine for people living with dementia.
- Dementia assistance dogs have been extensively trained specifically for people with dementia. These dogs can be trained to help their owners maintain their daily routines by waking them up in the morning and reminding them when to eat or take medication.
- Dementia assistance dogs will react to the command ‘home’ and lead their owner safely home.
- Dogs help dementia patients as they provide sensory stimulation through stroking and talking.
- Therapy dogs for dementia encourage outdoor activity reducing social isolation.
- The pet doesn’t mind if they’ve heard a story several times before and happy to sit and listen.
- The calming nature of a therapy pet and dementia assistance dogs reduces bouts of restlessness.
- Animals always look the same – they don’t change their hairstyle or wear different clothes daily. This familiarity is comforting to someone living with dementia and helps them face new situations.
Dogs with exceptional intelligence are the best breeds to care for someone with dementia as it is essential that they help maintain routines and are intuitive to their owner’s needs. The dogs best suited for this role are retrievers, collies, shepherds and Labradors.
Communication between a person with dementia and their friends and family can become difficult and frustrating. Our article on Dementia Communication Tips from an Admiral Nurse gives you lots of practical advice.
Pet therapy towards positive changes
Being with an animal is joyful; their friendship, love and affection are characteristics particularly beneficial to the elderly. There is no doubt that pet therapy works well with people living with dementia, but let’s explore some of the other benefits of using pets for therapy.
1. Tackling loneliness
Caring for an animal, or receiving a visit from a therapy pet, is a great way to overcome feelings of isolation.
- Spending time with an animal increases a person’s level of oxytocin, a powerful hormone which promotes feelings of well-being, bonding and trust.
- Animals are great listeners, especially dogs, as they react to the voice and human emotions.
- Taking a dog for a walk is a healthy way to meet others in the local community.
Animals crave companionship and naturally love to be around people.
2. Relieves stress, anxiety and depressive feelings
The act of stroking and playing with an animal triggers chemical chain-reactions in our brain.
- Levels of endorphins increase to promote relaxation.
- We get a boost of serotonin, a natural mood stabiliser, with the ability to reduce depression and regulate anxiety.
- Cortisol is lowered, the hormone associated with stress.
3. Increases self-worth
Caring for an animal can lead to a sense of purpose and focus; great for improving self-esteem.
- The use of therapy pets is extremely useful to those who have recently lost a loved-one as the animal will shower the person with unconditional love and affection giving them a sense of purpose.
- Older people, who are being cared for, benefit greatly from walking, brushing and feeding an animal. The ‘cared for’ become the ‘carer’, resulting in feelings of empowerment.
4. Benefits cancer patients
Therapy dogs can be especially helpful to people living with cancer.
- Therapy dogs treat everyone the same, no matter what their mood or how they are feeling.
- They offer an emotional connection and instinctively know when someone needs comforting.
- Extensive research has shown that pet therapy used during chemotherapy sessions reduces depression and fatigue, and improves blood oxygenation. 
- Research has also proved that cancer patients with a therapy dog need less pain medications. 
5. Support stroke patients
Therapy dogs can help people recovering from a stroke through movement and speech practice.
- The simple act of stroking an animal decreases spasticity while increasing motor recovery.
- Stroke survivors with aphasia benefit greatly from therapy dogs as the pet can react to just one word. This rewarding feeling will encourage them to practice their speech.
If your parent, or someone who know has been affected by a stroke, you may find comfort in ‘The Story Of A Stroke – Moving Forward’, a personal account from a daughter following her mum’s stroke.
6. Promotes social interaction and communication with others
Therapy dogs help people create friendships.
- People with dogs are more likely to meet new people when out walking.
- Animals are fantastic talking points.
- As levels of oxytocin increases, so does the sense of bonding which will transpose to other people – great for long term health.
7. Encourages a better diet and improves appetite
Interacting with an animal can stimulate appetite as levels of the primary stress hormone, cortisol, decreases which is associated with regulating appetites. This adrenal chemical is also responsible for the craving of carbohydrates and sugars, so it seems that cuddling an animal can keep our waistlines in shape too.
Here’s some tips on healthy eating as we get older.
8. Aids recovery after surgery
Using pets in hospitals as therapy will speed up the recovery process and reduce the amount of pain killers needed as the calming effect of stroking an animal produces an automatic relaxation response.
9. Improves overall physical health
The health benefits of interacting with a therapy pet are numerous:
- Scientists believe that petting an animal reduces blood pressure reducing risks of heart attacks or strokes and reduces stress. 
- Walking with a dog and throwing a ball provides much-needed exercise; improving mobility and motor skills.
- The repetitive act of stroking an animal works out arthritic hands and arms.
We’ve written an article to give you more ideas on how to get fit.
10. Good for the heart
Not only do these furry creatures fill our hearts with love, they also keep our hearts healthy too, here’s how:
- Therapy dogs increase a person’s willingness to exercise in the fresh air.
- They help lower the heart rate improving cardiovascular health.
- Over time, interaction with a pet can lower cholesterol levels, protecting against heart disease.
Who can benefit from pet therapy?
As the main aim for therapy pets is to provide love, affection and comfort, everyone can benefit from their companionship, in particular:
- Someone who feels lonely, anxious or depressed
- People with chronic illnesses, heart conditions or arthritis
- Patients recovering from surgery
- A person suffering from grief
- Someone living with dementia
- Patients undergoing treatment for cancer
Unable to look after a pet at home?
All animals, from the largest of dogs to the tiniest of fish need caring for. So, what if your mum or dad would benefit from pet therapy, still live at home but sadly unable to look after an animal anymore?
Consider contacting an organisation such as Borrow My Doggy where you can look after someone else’s dog for short periods of time. Due to the extensive range of dogs registered with this organisation, it’s not always about exercise, there are dogs who are more than happy to just curl up on a lap for comfort.
In addition to looking after an animal in your own home, Dementia Dog provide Dementia Community Dogs to dementia friendly community centres in Scotland where the dogs provide gentle interaction with their trained handlers to people with dementia and their carers.
Where do therapy pets visit?
There are various settings where people benefit from a therapy pet, this includes hospitals, nursing homes, residential homes, care homes, day care centres, rehabilitation centres and hospices.
To request a visit from a therapy pet into an establishment contact Pets as Therapy. Visits from the pets and their owners must take place in communal areas and if walked, the animals must remain on the premises.
Has your dog got what it takes to be a therapy pet?
Dogs have lots of love to give, so why not share it?
Allowing your dog to become a therapy pet is extremely rewarding and is guaranteed to put a smile on many faces. It may even change someone’s life!
Let’s look at some commonly asked questions to get you started.
Can I use my own dog as therapy?
This all depends on the nature of the dog and what activities you are expecting your dog to carry out. If your dog provides you with a sense of well-being and is well- behaved, then it sounds like you will benefit greatly from having your furry friend around.
What are the requirements for a dog to be used for therapy?
It is recommended that your dog has been with you for at least 6 months and be over 9 months of age. Your dog will have to demonstrate basic obedience, patience, tolerance of unusual sounds and sights, and be gentle around people
In addition to pet therapy dog requirements, your dog should be in good health and up to date with vaccinations and parasite prevention.
How do I get my dog trained and certified as a therapy dog?
Therapy dogs involved in visiting programmes do not require any special training. They will however need a Pets as Therapy assessment and be certified.
The two main groups that certify therapy pets are Pets as Therapy and the Canine Concern Scotland Trust, who affectionately refer to their trained animals as ‘Therapets’. They will carry out an assessment of suitability for your dog.
What are the best breeds for therapy dogs?
Any dog can be a therapy pet if is shows the characteristics outlined above and out of the boisterous ‘puppy stage’.
Although any size dog can make a great therapy pet, small dogs are particularly well-suited for the job because they can easily be lifted onto a person’s bed or chair.
What are the best breeds for older adults UK?
Low maintenance dogs who don’t require much exercise and small enough to be handled are ideal dogs for elderly people.
Got a question about pet therapy or want to share ideas? Go to our forum now!
Charities & Associations
Pets as Therapy A humanitarian charity at the forefront of community based Animal Assisted Therapy across the length and breadth of the UK.
Canine Concern Scotland Trust Establish and maintain the ‘Therapet’ service and promote research into the therapeutic value of dogs to patients or others isolated from normal association with pets.
HenPower. Cultivates creativity in care settings at a time of life when most people are slowing down, and not stepping into wellies or making masterpieces.
Canine Concern A UK charity who care for people as well as dogs. They can help you become a volunteer and arrange visits from a therapy dog.
Society for Companion Animal Studies The leading human-companion animal bond organisation in the UK through providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion bond.
Our Special Friends Enhancing human well-being through animal companionship.
Therapaws The Mayhew for Dogs, Cats and Communities animal therapy programme that works to improve well-being in London communities by providing animal companionship.
Research references Pets as Therapy  Article from Mesothelioma.net available from the Cancer Research UK website  Natural Blood Pressure Solutions’ article linking Animal and Blood Pressure – petting your way to better health
Most information for this article was taken from the Charities’ websites listed above. In addition, the Society for Companion Animal Studies provide a link to the International Federation of Ageing’s full report on Measuring the Benefits Companion Animals and the Health of Older Persons.