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All about the Importance of Pet Therapy in Care Settings

Last updated on 20th December 2023

Pet therapy, a practice that involves incorporating animals into care settings, has gained recognition for its profound impact on individuals facing illness, recovery or emotional distress. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of pet therapy as a valuable therapeutic intervention in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centres and educational institutions.

This article explores the importance of pet therapy, examining how the presence of animals can provide comfort, reduce stress, and improve overall well-being. By understanding the tangible benefits of this intervention, we can advocate for its widespread implementation and recognise its pivotal role in care settings.

What is pet therapy?

Pet therapy is also known as animal-assisted therapy, or AAT. It is a therapeutic intervention that involves the presence of trained animals in care settings to promote physical, emotional and cognitive well-being. The goal of pet therapy is to enhance the quality of life for individuals. This is achieved by providing them with the unique companionship and unconditional love that animals offer.

Assistance dogs, like guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired, have been around for a long time and are widely accepted everywhere. In fact, 850 new guide dogs are placed with visually impaired people each year in the UK. According to the Priory Group, there are around 6,300 dogs trained as Pets as Therapy (PAT) dogs in the UK.

A therapy animal, like a therapy dog, is different from assistance animals. An assistance dog works with someone with a disability or medical condition like epilepsy. Therapy animals, however, are used to calm and respond to people being upset or unsettled.

Animals used in pet therapy

A wide variety of animals are used in pet therapy. The animals used depend on the specific needs and preferences of the individuals involved.

Here are some examples of animals commonly used in pet therapy:

  • Dogs: Dogs are the most prevalent and versatile companions in pet therapy. Their friendly and empathetic nature makes them ideal for a range of conditions, from supporting children with autism spectrum disorders to providing comfort to cancer patients during treatment.
  • Cats: Known for their calming presence, cats are often included in pet therapy programmes. Their gentle purring and soft touch can help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation, particularly in settings such as nursing homes or psychiatric facilities.
  • Horses: Equine-assisted therapy has gained popularity in recent years. Interacting with horses can have therapeutic benefits for individuals with physical, emotional or behavioural challenges, such as improving motor skills, building self-confidence and fostering emotional connections.
  • Birds: Birds, such as parrots or cockatiels, can be incorporated into pet therapy programmes due to their ability to provide companionship and stimulate social interaction. Their colourful feathers and melodious chirping can create a soothing and engaging environment.
  • Rabbits: With their soft fur and gentle demeanour, rabbits are well-suited for pet therapy, particularly in settings involving children or individuals with sensory processing disorders. Their presence can encourage nurturing behaviours and help reduce stress and anxiety.

It is important to note that the animals used in pet therapy are evaluated and trained to ensure they are well-behaved, obedient and comfortable in a range of care settings. Additionally, handlers and therapists work in close proximity with the animals to ensure the safety and well-being of both the animals and the individuals they interact with.

Pet therapy programmes strive to create a positive and healing environment that supports the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of those in need.

Cat being used for pet therapy

How does pet therapy help people?

With its unique blend of unconditional love, empathy and companionship, pet therapy offers a myriad of benefits to individuals across different care settings. Here are some ways in which pet therapy can positively impact people.

Emotional and psychological well-being

Interacting with animals has been shown to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. The presence of a friendly and non-judgemental animal can create a soothing and comforting environment, providing emotional support and a sense of security. Petting an animal or cuddling one is known to stimulate the release of endorphins and oxytocin. These are commonly known as ‘feel-good’ hormones and promote feelings of happiness and well-being.

Social interaction and connection

For individuals who may struggle with social interaction, pet therapy can serve as a catalyst for engagement. Animals often act as social bridges, encouraging communication and interaction between individuals. Petting or playing with a therapy animal can facilitate conversation, improve self-esteem and enhance social skills, particularly in settings such as hospitals, care homes or schools.

Physical health benefits

Pet therapy can have positive effects on physical health. For instance, stroking an animal’s fur can lower blood pressure and heart rate, promoting cardiovascular health. Engaging in activities such as walking or grooming therapy animals can also contribute to increased physical activity, improved motor skills and enhanced coordination.

Cognitive stimulation

Interaction with animals can stimulate cognitive functions. Engaging in activities such as teaching commands to dogs, solving puzzles or tasks with animals or simply observing and identifying different behaviours can enhance cognitive abilities, including attention, memory and problem-solving skills.

Pain and stress management

Pet therapy has been found to have a positive impact on pain management. The distraction and relaxation provided by therapy animals can help reduce perceived pain levels and alleviate discomfort during medical procedures or rehabilitation sessions. Additionally, the presence of animals has shown to decrease stress hormone levels, fostering a calming effect on individuals.

Motivation and engagement

Incorporating pet therapy into therapeutic programmes can increase motivation and engagement in individuals undergoing physical or occupational therapy. The goal-oriented nature of interacting with animals, such as engaging in structured activities or training sessions, can enhance motivation, focus and perseverance during the rehabilitation process.

The benefits of pet therapy vary depending on the individual’s condition, the type of animal involved and the specific goals. Trained professionals, like therapists, healthcare providers or volunteers, work closely with therapy animals to tailor interventions to the unique needs and preferences of each individual. This ensures a safe and effective therapeutic experience.

By fostering a sense of joy, comfort and connection, pet therapy has the remarkable ability to uplift spirits, enhance well-being and contribute to the overall healing process of individuals in care settings.

Why is pet therapy important in care settings?

Pet therapy holds significant importance in care settings as it addresses various aspects of well-being that are crucial for individuals navigating illness, recovery or emotional distress.

One importance of this therapy is that it alleviates loneliness and isolation. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can have detrimental effects on an individual’s physical and mental health.

Pet therapy offers a source of companionship and emotional support, particularly for those who may be separated from loved ones or experiencing limited social interactions. The presence of therapy animals can provide comfort, reduce feelings of loneliness, and create a sense of connection, fostering a supportive environment for individuals in care settings. It’s also a different type of companionship as there are no expectations from the animal.

In many care settings, individuals may face challenges in maintaining physical activity levels due to illness, disability or limited mobility. Pet therapy often involves activities such as walking, grooming or playing with therapy animals, which can encourage movement and exercise. The need to care for and interact with animals can motivate individuals to engage in physical activities, contributing to improved strength, coordination and overall physical well-being.

By their nature, care settings often come with inherent stressors and anxieties related to medical procedures, treatments or the unfamiliarity of the environment. Petting or interacting with therapy animals has been shown to have a calming effect, reducing stress and anxiety levels. The presence of animals can help individuals relax, regulate their emotions and create a positive distraction from their worries, contributing to a more peaceful and supportive care experience.

Finally, emotional well-being plays a crucial role in overall health and recovery. Pet therapy provides emotional support and can uplift spirits through the unconditional love, acceptance and non-judgemental nature of animals. The bond between individuals and therapy animals can boost mood, improve self-esteem and instil a sense of purpose and joy, fostering emotional well-being in care settings.

By addressing the multifaceted needs of individuals in care settings, pet therapy offers a holistic approach to support their well-being. Whether by alleviating loneliness, promoting physical activity, facilitating social interaction, reducing stress or enhancing emotional well-being, pet therapy plays a vital role in creating a nurturing and healing environment for those in need.

Feeling relaxed from pet therapy

Which care settings would benefit from pet therapy?

There are lots of different settings where pet therapy proves beneficial. One example is elderly care homes. These settings are often home to individuals who may experience feelings of loneliness, isolation or cognitive decline. Pet therapy can bring joy and companionship to their lives, offering emotional support and alleviating feelings of social disconnection. Interacting with therapy animals can improve mood, stimulate memories and provide a sense of purpose, which enhances the overall well-being of elderly residents.

Another setting where pet therapy is an advantage is in paediatric care settings. Children undergoing medical treatments, hospital stays or those facing emotional challenges can benefit greatly from pet therapy. The presence of therapy animals can create a welcoming and reassuring environment, helping to alleviate anxiety, fear and stress. Interacting with animals can provide a sense of normalcy, distraction and comfort for paediatric patients, supporting their emotional and psychological well-being during their healthcare journey.

Rehabilitation centres, whether focused on physical, cognitive or emotional rehabilitation, can integrate pet therapy successfully too. Animals can act as motivating factors during therapy sessions, encouraging individuals to engage in exercises, improve motor skills or enhance cognitive functions. The presence of therapy animals can also contribute to emotional healing and psychological well-being too.

Pet therapy can also be instrumental in mental health facilities, where individuals may struggle with various conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Animals offer a sense of comfort, emotional regulation and non-judgemental companionship. Pet therapy can help reduce symptoms, improve mood and enhance the therapeutic environment in mental health settings.

Finally, pet therapy can play a valuable role in special educational settings, supporting children or young adults with diverse needs such as autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities or behavioural challenges. Interacting with therapy animals can enhance social skills, promote emotional regulation and provide sensory stimulation. Animals can serve as non-threatening and supportive partners, fostering a positive learning environment for students.

It is important to assess the suitability and safety of implementing pet therapy in specific care settings, taking into consideration factors such as allergies, animal handling protocols and the preferences of individuals involved. Proper training and supervision of therapy animals and their handlers are essential to ensure the well-being of both the animals and the individuals receiving therapy.

By tailoring pet therapy programmes to the unique needs of each care setting, the benefits of animal companionship can be harnessed effectively, enhancing the quality of life and well-being of individuals in a range of care settings.

Pet therapy activities in care settings

Pet therapy activities encompass a range of interactions and experiences designed to promote engagement, well-being and therapeutic benefits for individuals in care settings.

Here are some common pet therapy activities:

  • Animal-Assisted Visits: Therapy animals and their handlers visit care settings like hospitals or care homes, to provide companionship and emotional support to individuals. Patients or residents have the opportunity to spend time with the animals, pet them and engage in gentle interactions.
  • Animal Feeding: Allowing individuals to participate in feeding therapy animals can be a rewarding and engaging activity.
  • Grooming and Brushing: Grooming sessions with therapy animals, such as brushing their fur or cleaning their coats, can be soothing and enjoyable for individuals.
  • Walking or Exercising Animals: Walking or exercising therapy dogs is a popular activity in care settings, particularly for individuals who have mobility or physical rehabilitation goals.
  • Training Sessions: Involving individuals in training sessions with therapy animals can be an enriching and empowering activity. Participants can learn basic commands, tricks or tasks that they can practise with the animals.
  • Reading or Storytelling with Animals: Reading or storytelling sessions with therapy animals can create a relaxed and non-judgemental environment for individuals, particularly children.

It is important to note that pet therapy activities are tailored to the specific needs, abilities and preferences of the individuals involved. Trained handlers or therapists guide and supervise these activities, ensuring the safety and well-being of both the animals and the participants.

How is pet therapy introduced into care settings?

The implementation of pet therapy in care settings in the UK typically involves a collaborative effort among various stakeholders, including care providers, therapy animal organisations and trained professionals.

The first step is to conduct a needs assessment within the care setting to identify the specific requirements, goals and potential benefits of introducing pet therapy. This assessment may involve evaluating the well-being of individuals, assessing the availability of resources and infrastructure and considering any relevant regulations or guidelines.

Care providers often conduct research to identify reputable therapy animal organisations or registered charities that specialise in pet therapy. Establishing partnerships with these organisations is crucial, as they can provide trained therapy animals, experienced handlers and necessary support in implementing pet therapy programmes.

Handlers and therapy animals undergo specialised training and certification programmes to ensure they meet the standards of pet therapy interventions. Training typically covers topics such as animal behaviour, infection control, proper handling techniques and understanding the needs of individuals in care settings. Handlers may also be required to undergo background checks and obtain liability insurance.

Care providers, therapy animal organisations and professionals collaborate to develop a pet therapy programme tailored to the specific needs and goals of the care setting. This includes determining the frequency and duration of therapy sessions, identifying suitable activities and establishing guidelines for the interaction between individuals and therapy animals.

Before implementing pet therapy, risk assessments are conducted to ensure the safety of individuals and animals involved. This may involve assessing allergies, infection control measures and any potential risks associated with the specific care setting. Therapy animals also undergo regular health checks and vaccinations to maintain their well-being and minimise any health risks.

Pet therapy is gradually introduced into the care setting, allowing individuals to acclimatise to the presence of therapy animals and develop a positive rapport. Care providers and trained handlers closely monitor the interactions, ensuring the well-being and comfort of both individuals and animals. Feedback from participants and staff is gathered to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme and make any necessary adjustments.

Continuous evaluation of the pet therapy programme is essential to assess its impact, address any challenges and identify areas for improvement. Regular communication between care providers, therapy animal organisations and handlers helps maintain the quality and effectiveness of the programme. Feedback from participants, families and staff is invaluable in shaping the ongoing development and sustainability of pet therapy in the care setting.

Therapy animal after undertaking specialised training

Final thoughts on the importance of pet therapy in care settings

In conclusion, pet therapy plays a vital role in care settings by providing a unique and powerful form of support, companionship and healing. The positive impact of therapy animals on emotional well-being, social interaction, physical health and overall quality of life has been widely recognised.

Whether in care homes for the elderly, paediatric care settings, rehabilitation centres, mental health facilities or special educational settings, pet therapy brings a ray of joy, comfort and connection to individuals in need. By harnessing the remarkable bond between humans and animals, pet therapy offers a holistic approach to care, promoting well-being and enriching the lives of those experiencing illness, recovery or emotional distress.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.

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