There is no denying that the bond between a human and an animal is often special. And while a good majority of families in the U.S. own a pet, integrating pets in medical care facilities for patient support and recovery is something that has only emerged in recent years. Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is a form of therapy we’re hearing more about that can also provide comfort and care to individuals in need. But when it comes to specialized care in skilled nursing facilities, how can pet therapy help exactly? Can it really improve a patient’s mental health, physical health, and emotional well-being? Are there lasting positive effects?
What is Pet Therapy?
Pet therapy is a broad term that is usually described as the interaction between a person and a trained animal, specifically to aid in some sort of recovery. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, pet therapy can be used in a number of settings that are group or individual in nature. There is also usually a “goal-directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process.” 1
Pet Therapy at SNFs: A Closer Look
Skilled nursing facilities are known for providing care to the disabled, sick and injured, and studies now show that adding pet therapy to this line of care may also improve the mental and physical health of older individuals:
- Potential Mental Health Benefits
It’s common for patients undergoing medical care in skilled nursing facilities to sometimes experience depression, anxiety and/or feelings of loneliness due to their condition. Studies have indicated that pet therapy can not only improve a patient’s mood, but it can also encourage social skills and the desire to participate in activities.2 Additionally, pet therapy may encourage an individual to stay on the recovery course, as they find companionship and comfort in a trained animal that can also become an active part of their journey.
- Potential Physical Health Benefits
It’s widely understood and believed that stress can affect our physical health and take a toll on our bodies if we’re not careful. However, studies have shown that being in the presence of a pet can significantly reduce our stress levels and also lower our blood sugar. 3 But that’s not all. Since pets typically rely on us to be walked, cared for and played with, pet therapy also promotes an increase of physical activity and exercise. And it goes without saying, with greater movement comes greater mental clarity as well.
What’s Next for Pet Therapy
As pet therapy becomes increasingly popular in various types of patient care settings, researchers will continue to explore the positive effects this unique program has on people and medical staff in the community. As we glance towards the future, studies are also looking at how the interaction with robot dogs can be just as effective for patients, particularly for those living with memory loss or dementia.4
We may still have a long way to go before we understand the full benefits of pet therapy at SNFs, but it may just be a key element we cannot overlook in a person’s road to recovery.
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1. American Veterinary Medical Association, “Service, Emotional Support and Therapy Animals,” October 8, 2020.
2 – 3. National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The Benefit of Pets and Animal-Assisted Therapy to the Health of Older Individuals,” November 16, 2014.
4. Psychology Today, “Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work? The Pet-Human Bond,” June 23, 2018.