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. Additionally, animals have been used in helping people with various disabilities get around in the world, helping them to navigate indoor and outdoor spaces. Florence Nightingale, a pioneer of modern nursing, noticed that animals served as “excellent companions for the sick,” especially those with chronic conditions.
In spite of all the anecdotal evidence showing the healing power of animals, science was slow to study the phenomenon. But that has changed. 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 can lower levels of cortisol—a hormone associated with stress—in the body. Other studies have shown that pet owners receive 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 health conditions. 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 the appetite. That’s why animals are now commonly used for therapeutic purposes in hospitals, senior living communities, and even in hospice settings. It is in these situations, as people are nearing the end of their life, that animal therapy may be most profound. Interacting with a dog has comforted numerous hospice patients, helping them to make their transition more peacefully.
Many home-dwelling seniors have pets—that is one of the reasons they wish to remain at home! Unfortunately, health challenges may prevent them from caring for their animal companions as they used to. That’s where home care services can help. Along with personal care, assistance with mobility and housekeeping services, many home care professionals are helping seniors keep their pets longer, with fewer worries. Professional in-home caregivers might walk a dog, remind the client to feed or give medications to their pets, clean litterboxes, and help keep pet toys and food dishes out of the way to avoid the risk of falls. All of this enables seniors to enjoy the benefits of pet ownership longer, thereby enhancing their lives and, perhaps, allowing them to live longer.
Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2015.