What is pet therapy?
Pet therapy (or animal assisted therapy) is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal. The purpose of pet therapy is to support with someone’s wellbeing and mental health by bringing enjoyment, comfort and relaxation.
Benefits of pet therapy
Most of us have a pet at some time in our life and the relationship between us and an animal is very strong. Just because someone moves into a care home, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to animals.
Pet therapy has been proven to have a range of benefits, including:
- Reducing blood pressure
- Increasing mobility (for people walking with animals/riding horses) - this also has an added benefit of improving joint movement and dexterity
- Increasing levels of endorphins, making individuals feel calmer and less anxious
- Increasing responsibility and independence, especially for people who purchase and keep a pet
- Reducing stress
- Improving overall psychological state
- Bringing back memories – everyone likes a bit of nostalgia, right?
- Reducing loneliness
- Helping with speech and confidence
- Improving social interactions, especially in group activities.
Setting up pet therapy in your care home
1. Decide if it’s suitable for your service
Whether pet therapy is suitable for all care homes depends on the people living within it. Understandably, some of your residents might not like animals, so you’ll have to speak to everybody first to see how they feel.
At this stage, I’d highly recommend asking those you support what animals they’d like to connect with. Although dogs are commonly used, a greater range of animals have been introduced, including cats, fish, guinea pigs, rabbits, goats, ponies, horses and even snakes. I love that there’s so much choice!
2. Complete risk assessments
Prior to rolling out pet therapy, you’ll need to complete individual risk assessments on the people you support, considering pet hair allergies, any animals they don’t like, likelihood of injuries from scratches and bites etc.
3. Choose a location
Once you’ve done this, it’s important to consider what area you’re going to carry out the activity. Do you want to do this in individual rooms or a larger communal area? The answer to this will depend on what you hope to achieve from the therapy itself.
You’ll also need to assign someone from your team to supervise each session and the pet therapist, to ensure everybody remains safe.
4. Clean the area
Following the therapy, the area should be cleaned and disinfected to prevent any risk of infections or cross contamination.
5. Evaluate how successful the therapy was
Look back at what you were trying to achieve – did your residents enjoy themselves? Have they indicated they want to do it again?
Introducing permanent pets
Some care homes have begun to introduce 'house pets'. I’ve seen cats, small dogs, chickens, ducks, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish and even a goat!
This is a great way to ensure your residents have continual access to pets and encourage them to take on some responsibility for walking animals, cleaning them, grooming, feeding etc.
You can even collect the eggs from chickens and use these in the kitchen!
If the thought of introducing live animals into your service sends alarm bells ringing, you could consider using fake pets instead.
A study by Dr Karen Thodberg at Aarhus University, Denmark, investigated the impact of pet therapy on people living in nursing homes, using both real and fake pets. Each resident was encouraged to interact, touch and talk to the animals, and their behaviour was observed.
The findings of the research revealed that there were no significant differences in people’s behaviour when a fake or real therapy animal was used, in those without cognitive impairments. For those with severe impairments, it was evident that using fake animals encouraged people to come out of their shells and interact more.
For me, if having a fake pet around helps those living with dementia and/or a cognitive impairment by reducing anxiety, giving a sense of purpose or just simply bringing a smile to their faces, then it’s worth doing! We need to however remember that for some people (especially those living with dementia) that they see the fake pet as a real one and therefore we need to upskill and train our staff in how to care for the animal so that it does not cause the person unnecessary distress.
To pet, or not to pet? That is the question
We all know that Britain is a pet loving nation and we shouldn’t deprive people the chance to continue that love just because they’re living in a care home.
For some people pet therapy can bring a long-lasting happiness and for others a temporary pick me up. Real or fake, pets can brighten the days of the people we support and definitely something I’d advocate trialling. You never know, your service may soon become home to a resident pet!