Anyone who has owned a pet knows the joy an animal can bring to one’s life. You often hear enthusiasts describing their pets as their “children” and including them in family vacations and activities. Service animals help people with various disabilities get around in the world. Florence Nightingale, a pioneer of modern nursing, noticed that animals served as “excellent companions for the sick,” especially those with chronic conditions. Our popular culture is rife with images of animals performing heroic feats or simply uplifting spirits with their adorableness.
In spite of all the anecdotal evidence showing the healing power of animals, science was slow to study the phenomenon. That’s beginning to change. One of the earliest published studies found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. More recently, several studies have shown pets are natural mood enhancers, increasing levels of oxytocin and serotonin, both of which enhance our well-being. Even the simple act of watching a pet fish swim in an aquarium can lower levels of cortisol – a hormone associated with stress – in the body. Other studies have shown that pet owners get numerous health benefits from their animal companions:
- Lower blood pressure and cholesterol
- Reduced risk of heart attack and increased survival rates after a heart attack
- Decreased anxiety, loneliness and depression
- Better physical fitness
- Children growing up with a pet have fewer allergies and stronger immune systems
- Seniors who own pets have fewer doctor visits and reduced healthcare costs
Given all of the numerous benefits animals bring to humankind, it makes sense that animals are now being used as tools of therapy for a variety of maladies. For instance, an animal may be able to reach a child with autism or a senior with dementia in a way that no human can. Studies with Alzheimer’s patients have shown that interaction with animals can reduce agitation, increase positive social behavior (smiling, laughing, talking) and improve appetites. That’s why animals are now commonly used for therapeutic purposes in hospitals, senior living communities, and even in hospice settings.
It is in hospice situations, as people are nearing the end of their life, that the benefits of animal therapy may be most profound. Perhaps the best-known hospice therapy animal was Baxter, a dog who spent much of his time at San Diego Hospice and had such an amazing impact on the people he met there that he inspired many popular You Tube videos as well as his own book, Moments with Baxter. Today, dogs of all shapes and sizes help people at hospice facilities all across the country transition more peacefully.
There are a few things to consider before adding a pet to your life. Seniors who are considering pet ownership should select an animal that’s best for their situation. Pets should be properly vaccinated and trained—a rambunctious dog underfoot could cause a fall. Making emergency preparation plans for pets is another consideration. But with proper preparation, in most cases seniors have so much to gain from contact with friends with fur, feathers and fins.