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Why is animal therapy in care homes so popular?

Damon Culbert from Wild Science, provider of animal therapy in care homes across the UK, talks about the difference between short visits from animals and dedicated Animal Assisted Therapy.

Animals in care homes are a growing phenomenon attempting to improve the wellbeing of the elderly in long-term care. Many residential care providers have sung the praises of therapy dogs, cats, horses and even lizards in their ability to animate residents and stimulate social interaction. But what are the recorded benefits of animal therapy and should every care home invite animals in?

Not every encounter that seniors have with animals will qualify as animal therapy. Animal Assisted Therapy is defined as targeted therapy interventions which make use of an animal to achieve set goals. Examples in care homes might include having a resident walk a dog regularly in order to improve or maintain mobility functions long-term or games between animals and residents to encourage social interaction between residents experiencing heightened feelings of loneliness.

Animal Assisted Activities, on the other hand, Animal therapy in care homes - a man in a wheelchair in the garden with a dog on his kneeare less focused interactions with animals used to entertain, educate and engage. These can include one-off visits from exotic animals where residents are encouraged to hold, play with and stroke different kinds of animals. Live-in care home animals may also provide many of the benefits which can be achieved during animal therapy but might not fit the definition of therapy as activities are not so structured. 

This article on animal therapy in care homes will look at the ways care home residents can benefit from the company of animals in both AAT and AAA.

Improved motor skills

Animal interaction can be hugely beneficial for the physical wellbeing of residents of all abilities, whether that is through stroking, brushing, walking or playing.

Many non-mobile residents enjoy the presence of animals and look forward to their visits. Allowing animals like dogs, cats and horses to be stroked and brushed by residents of limited mobility provides vital tactile stimulation. This stimulation is not only beneficial for the maintenance of fine motor skills but also provides other health benefits. Stroking animals increases levels of ‘happiness’ hormone oxytocin and reduces levels of stress hormone cortisol, helping reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and fear which can be common in care home residents.

Residents who are more mobile may also experience physical benefits from interaction with animals. Walking dogs regularly is a great way of improving or maintaining motor functions long-term, helping residents maintain independence for longer.  Regular exercise is vital for the elderly, especially those in long-term care and research shows that dog walking helps reduce blood pressure, can be beneficial for recovery after major events like strokes and helps maintain general heart health.

Increased social interaction

For many residents, having to leave their own homes and support networks can be a very isolating experience and many can find it difficult to build new relationships. This is a particular problem for those with conditions like dementia. One of the main benefits of regular animal interaction for came home residents is the animals’ ability to stimulate social interaction. Animal therapy practitioners notice that residents are far more likely to interact with them and the other residents in the presence of animals. Animals often trigger memories of other animals such as past pets which allows residents to enjoy memories of their past while sharing them as part of a group.

Additionally, taking on the responsibility of care is beneficial for the elderly as they form routines that not only structure their day but encourage them to interact with staff and other residents to complete tasks based around the animals. This could include walking dogs, feeding pets and, in some care homes, means collecting chicken eggs.

This study identified touch as a significant and undervalued part of social interaction which is beneficial to elderly residents struggling to involve themselves socially. Residents who interacted with animals were much more likely to touch the animals but also to interact with their peers in the same way. The importance of touch in social interaction is similar to its importance in physical development and can help reduce feelings of isolation.

Reduced loneliness and depression

Having resident pets in care homes or organising regular visits from the same animals can help the elderly form attachments which in turn can reduce feelings of loneliness. Animal therapy programs can also use the structure of forming bonds with animals to then encourage residents to form closer bonds together, further improving social interaction and residents’ mental wellbeing.

The hormonal response to pets is also one of animal therapy’s greatest attractions. Animal therapist Cynthia Chandler believes that oxytocin is one of the most powerful social hormones we produce and the ability of animals to naturally promote its production is why animal therapy is becoming ever more popular.

Things to consider

While animal activity and animal therapy in care homes can provide fantastic benefits for those in long-term residential care, it’s important to note that their benefit won’t be felt by everyone. Some things to consider before introducing animal therapy in care homes include residents who don’t like or are afraid of animals and those who suffer from allergies. Rather than keep a dog or cat at the care home at all times, it might be more successful to bring the animal in regularly for short period to interact with small groups so that nobody is subjected to an experience they don’t want.

Animal therapy in care homes is causing a huge stir and, due to its ability to bring enrichment and positivity to residents’ lives, it’s likely to stay. However, introducing animals to the elderly must be done with careful consideration for every resident’s wellbeing.

For more information on animal therapy in care homes, see wildsci.co.uk

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