Pet Therapy: The Healing Power of Pet Companionship

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Who rescued who?

Researchers found that even one 30-minute-long session of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) reduced loneliness. Journal of Gerontology

The benefits for older adults of spending time with a pet are well documented. Pet therapy is linked to strengthened emotional health, reduced depression and lower psychological distress. Seniors with dogs, for instance, go to the doctor less and report fewer illnesses. Dog walking provides them with exercise and positive social interaction and encourages playfulness. Even the snootiest of cats will allow their owners to play with them – when it suits them! Pets also satisfy the human need for touch and provide non-judgemental affection.

Pet therapy can be a support system when no family or friends are nearby. They often help their owners remain emotionally stable during times of stress or crisis. It could be said that, together, they help each other survive. Many seniors will choose to adopt an older “rescue” pet and say, “I’m not sure who rescued who.”

That’s an impressive list of benefits! But what happens when living circumstances change?

Meet Judy

Living with diabetes had always made Judy feel like an outsider, but her little dog Boris had given her a reason to get up every day, socialise with others and get to know her neighbours. As her disease progressed, Judy knew she needed to move into a retirement community, but she was wary of cliques and not being accepted. She was so happy when she learned that Boris could move in, too – here was her sure-fire icebreaker and conversation starter! Then tragedy struck. Boris was diagnosed with a serious kidney disease, and to spare her pal any more pain, Judy made the heartbreaking decision to have him put down. Without her little mascot, Judy was lost, stayed in her apartment, stopped eating, and began refusing visits and medical attention.

All this just because of a dog? Take note: Boris was much more than a dog for Judy. He was actually an essential part of her coping strategy that allowed her to make transitions in her life. Boris provided companionship, imposed a welcome routine, inspired Judy to exercise and gave her the unconditional love that she was so worried she’d never receive. Fellow retirement home residents would have accepted Judy with or without her dog – but she wasn’t ready or willing to go that route.

About six months after Boris died, the veterinary clinic called Judy to say that a four-year-old dog, Wilbur, had been left with them – was she interested in taking him on? She jumped at the chance, and soon she and her new companion were able to move into the retirement residence and create a new, safer, more convenient life for Judy.

Dog walking provides them with exercise and positive social interaction.

Meet Agnes

Agnes went to the store one morning. Unfortunately, she fell in the parking lot and was sent to hospital with a broken hip. A nosey neighbour, whom Agnes had never liked, cared enough to arrange with Agnes’ out-of-town family to take her dog to the safety of a boarding kennel. However, Agnes worried excessively about Goldie, her German shepherd, working herself into near hysteria at the thought of having to “put the dog down.” After all, how would she ever regain enough mobility to manage a big dog like her beloved Goldie?

Goldie gave Agnes someone to care for and care about. Having Goldie meant investing in another life, a commitment to the future, and a focus on something other than her physical problems and fears about growing old. Losing Goldie came to represent losing control of her own life and facing the future alone.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.–Anatole France.

The hospital social worker contacted Goldie’s veterinarian, who went to visit Agnes when she returned home. The veterinarian told her that Goldie was doing well at the kennel and reviewed the dog’s daily routine and exercise needs. At age eight, Goldie was a passive, gentle dog who required only three short walks a day; other visits out the back door could be managed by Agnes on her rollator. The vet suggested that his dog walker, who had been walking Goldie at the boarding kennel, would be willing to carry on when Agnes returned home. Masterfully, the promise of a new regimen of visits, dog walks, and cups of tea became the focus of Agnes’s day and greatly assisted in her stress-free recovery.

Meet Eric

Eric was a reclusive single man. His cat, Tootsie, was his “family”, and with a bit of negotiating, the pair successfully moved into a retirement community together. Seven years later, Eric suffered a stroke and died. While his suite was being cleared out, Tootsie bolted. A week later, she reappeared in the lobby, but, of course, Eric was gone. What to do?

The receptionist, a cat lover, had the idea of “donating” Tootsie, who was really no trouble, to the dementia residents’ wing.

A bed, scratching post and toys were placed in the common
area and Tootsie eventually became bolder and more friendly. Residents would be pleasantly surprised when Tootsie jumped into their lap for a visit. She seemed to know who was lonely and needed comfort that day. Even the most reclusive residents started to keep their doors open in case the cat wanted to visit, and they shared cat treats from a bowl at the nurses’ station.

When Tootsie’s kittens were born, a result of her short “vacation” after Eric passed, it was as if the residents had been electrified! Playing with the kittens, naming them, making them toys, finding them homes among their families and staff and even changing the litter box became a focus. Nothing was too much trouble.

When a pet cannot stay with its owner

  • Not all circumstances allow pet ownership to continue. Here are some tips for dealing with such situations.
  • Get the owner’s input when planning. Do they have ideas or preferences? It will ease their mind to know their furry friend will be cared for.
  • Ideally, the current owner will help the pet transition to its new owner. This might involve visiting with the pet, going on walks and allowing the pet to be cared for part-time in its new home before full-time ownership begins.
  • Once adopted, allow the previous owner to have continued contact with the pet.
  • An older person’s pet should be provided for in a will and a carer named.
  • If a carer is not named in the will, the pet’s veterinarian will often help re-house it among their clientele or might refer you to reputable organisations that re-home pets.

Best of friends

Pets exist in the here and now. They don’t worry about a tomorrow that might be frightening for dementia patients or worrisome for a person living with cancer. Animals soothe and centre people and bring them a sense of peace. Their non-verbal communication can also be easily understood and appreciated by people who are no longer able to speak.

Animals can evoke long-term memories. Talking about this pet or that one can bring back your childhood memories, and they can stimulate discussion, memory retention and positive associations in times of need.

Judy, Agnes and Eric all show how pets are part of our lives and can remain an active partner throughout life’s transitions.

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