Pets can help older adults living in nursing homes feel less alone and improve their social interactions. Further, many nursing homes are using visiting therapy animals or robotic pets to help patients who cannot care for a pet on their own. Learn how companion pets can bring joy to nursing home residents.
Pets for Nursing Home Residents Provide Companionship
Even in a best-case scenario, adjusting to life in a nursing home can be hard. This is very true for seniors who have always lived independently. Thankfully, the transition can be eased with the help of a pet.
Animals lift people’s spirits and can provide comfort and companionship. Numerous studies have shown that therapy animals like dogs and cats can greatly improve the well-being of older people.
If you or a loved one is moving into a nursing home, see if you can bring your pets as well. Many long-term care facilities also have therapy animal or robotic pet programs, so older adults without pets can get some of the benefits.
Can I Take a Pet Into a Nursing Home?
This depends on a number of factors, including your overall health and the nursing home’s policies.
Not every nursing home will allow pets and the ones that do will have rules in place for them.
Our team has compiled a list of the pros and cons of having a pet in a nursing home. With proper care, the benefits of pets often outweigh the risks.
Pros of Pets in Nursing Homes
- Pets can bring owners joy and reduce stress.
- Pets encourage activity and movement (for example, dog walking), which may lower blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Socialization is encouraged by owning a pet, particularly in a group home.
- Service dogs and emotional support animals may possibly help victims of emotional abuse and/or physical abuse heal faster.
Cons of Pets in Nursing Homes
- Pets like cats and dogs can easily pose a fall hazard to people with balance issues. Hyperactive pets, particularly dogs, can be too much for the elderly to handle.
- Pets are expensive. For example, the lifetime cost of owning one dog is over $14,000.
- The death of a pet can trigger extreme grief.
- More exotic pets like lizards commonly carry bacteria like salmonella. A lack of hygiene can increase the risk of contracting dangerous infections from these pets.
Pets for Seniors in Nursing Homes: Other Options
Owning a pet full time is not always an option for elderly people. However, there are other options that allow older people in nursing homes to still interact with animals without the responsibility of caring for them.
Visiting Therapy Pets for Seniors in Nursing Homes
Therapy animals are often the best option for residents who can’t have a pet. Many long-term care facilities have programs in place where therapy animals visit to brighten the residents’ day.
Arguably, the most popular therapy animals are dogs. There are over 50,000 therapy dogs in the United States alone, according to National Geographic.
Organizations that connect people with therapy dogs include:
- The American Kennel Club: This organization has a list of local and national groups that train service dogs and connect them with people who need them.
- Therapy Dogs International: This group also provides information on therapy dogs and ways to connect.
Dogs aren’t the only animals used to help older people. Cats, horses, and other animals may also be used. In fact, an emotional support alligator named Wally paid a visit to a Pennsylvania nursing home in January 2019. The residents lined up to pet Wally and some even had him on their laps.
Robotic Pets for Seniors
Robotic pets can make a good substitute for real ones. These robotic stuffed animals provide comfort without the hassles of owning a pet. They even add an extra layer of realism by moving and making realistic animal noises.
Robotic dogs, cats, and seals are all available to give older adults similar benefits to real animals.
Robotic pets are particularly helpful for dementia patients. In one Massachusetts nursing home, robotic dogs and cats are used on the memory care wing to calm down residents that are having a hard day.
Further, a 2017 study noted that the PARO® brand robotic therapy seal reduced stress and anxiety in dementia patients, and also allowed them to rely less on medications.
If residents are mobile enough, a trip to a local dog park can be another good option to visit animals.
Some facilities are taking this idea one step further. For example, Mercy Health-Oakwood Village in Springfield, Ohio, added a dog park for its residents and their pets.
“It brings such joy. So even if they can’t have a pet themselves, they can come appreciate and watch the pets play.”
— Annette Turner, Mercy Health-Oakwood Village Senior Living Executive Director
See if a nursing home you’re considering has a dog park or if there’s one nearby that you can easily visit.
Pets Help Seniors Stay Happy and Healthy
Animals — whether they’re pets, robotic, or visiting therapy animals — provide incredible benefits to nursing home residents. They can provide comfort and even improve a resident’s overall health.
If you or a loved one is living in a nursing home, ask the facility how animals are being used to help residents (if at all).
From there, you may want to consider getting a pet (whether real or robotic) or reaching out to a service animal group to arrange a visit. Make sure you’re following the nursing home’s rules to keep other residents safe at all times.