The Role of Pet Therapy in Nursing Homes

Pets are an integral part of our lives. They are our companions, confidants, and best friends. But did you know that pets can also play an important role in nursing homes? Yes, that’s right! Pet therapy is a popular method of therapy that is becoming increasingly popular in nursing homes across the world. In this blog post, I will talk about the role of pet therapy in nursing homes and how it can benefit the elderly.

What is pet therapy?

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is a type of therapy that involves the use of animals to help people who are experiencing emotional or physical problems. This therapy is based on the belief that animals have a natural ability to help people feel better and can provide comfort, support, and companionship to those in need.

In pet therapy, trained animals, such as dogs, cats, and rabbits, are brought into nursing homes to interact with the residents. The animals are usually well-behaved and friendly, and they are trained to provide comfort and support to the residents. Therapy can take many forms, such as petting, grooming, and playing with the animals.

What does the research say?

In this study, researchers wanted to find out if spending time with pets could make elderly folks in nursing homes feel better. You see, sometimes older people living in nursing homes can feel lonely, sad, and like life isn’t as exciting as it used to be.

So, they did a study where they had two groups of elderly folks living in a nursing home. One group got to hang out with cute animals like dogs and cats (we’ll call them the “pet therapy group”), while the other group didn’t get to do that (they were the “no pet therapy group”).

Before they started hanging out with the animals and after they were done, both groups answered some questions to see how they were feeling. They asked about things like if they were feeling anxious, sad, bored, lonely, and how good their life was.

Surprisingly, the results showed that the people who spent time with the animals felt much better afterward. They were less anxious, less sad, less bored, less lonely, and they said their life was better. And the best part was that their quality of life improved the most, which means they just felt happier overall.

So, this study suggests that spending time with pets, like dogs and cats, can really help make older folks in nursing homes feel happier and less lonely. It’s not just good for the elderly people; it also makes their families and the folks taking care of them feel better too. So, pet therapy seems like a win-win for everyone involved!

The benefits of pet therapy in nursing homes

Pet therapy can have many benefits for the elderly residents of nursing homes. Here are some of the key benefits:

Reducing loneliness and depression

One of the most significant benefits of pet therapy is that it can help to reduce loneliness and depression in nursing home residents. Many elderly people feel isolated and alone, particularly if they have lost friends and family members. Having a friendly and affectionate animal to interact with can provide a much-needed sense of companionship and can help to combat feelings of loneliness and depression.

Improving physical health

grandma and child walking downstairs

Pet therapy can also have physical health benefits for nursing home residents. For example, petting and grooming animals can help to reduce blood pressure and heart rate, which can have a positive impact on overall health. In addition, playing with animals can help to improve hand-eye coordination and motor skills, which can be particularly beneficial for those who are recovering from an illness or injury.

Providing emotional support

Pets are known for their ability to provide emotional support to their owners. This is also true in nursing homes, where residents can benefit from the comfort and support provided by animals. Many elderly people have experienced significant losses in their lives, such as the loss of a spouse or close friend. Having a pet to talk to and confide in can provide a sense of comfort and emotional support.

Increasing social interaction

Pet therapy can also help to increase social interaction among nursing home residents. The presence of animals can be a great conversation starter and can help to break down social barriers. Residents who may be shy or withdrawn may be more likely to interact with others when animals are present, which can help to increase socialization and reduce feelings of isolation.

Promoting a sense of purpose

Finally, pet therapy can promote a sense of purpose and responsibility among nursing home residents. Many elderly people feel like they have lost their sense of purpose in life, particularly if they are no longer able to work or engage in other activities they once enjoyed. Caring for and interacting with animals can provide a sense of purpose and can help residents feel like they are making a positive contribution to the world.

How does pet therapy work in nursing homes?

Pet therapy is typically facilitated by trained professionals who work with nursing home residents to help them interact with animals. These professionals may be veterinarians, animal trainers, or therapists who specialize in pet therapy.

The first step in pet therapy is to identify residents who may benefit from the therapy. This may involve an assessment of the resident’s physical and emotional health, as well as their personal preferences and interests.

Once residents have been identified, the therapist or trainer will introduce them to the animals and guide how to interact with them safely and appropriately. The animals used in pet therapy are typically selected based on their temperament, friendliness, and suitability for interaction with the elderly.

During pet therapy sessions, residents may have the opportunity to pet, groom, or play with the animals. The therapist or trainer will often facilitate these interactions and guide how to interact with the animals in a way that is safe and enjoyable for both the resident and the animal.

Pet therapy sessions may be conducted on an individual or group basis, depending on the needs and preferences of the residents. In some cases, pets may be brought into common areas of the nursing home, such as the dining room or lounge, to allow for more spontaneous interactions between residents and animals.

Pet therapy programs in nursing homes may be offered regularly, such as once a week or once a month. Some nursing homes may also offer special events, such as pet parades or visits from local animal shelters, to provide residents with additional opportunities for animal interaction.

What kinds of animals are typically used in pet therapy programs in nursing homes?

Dogs are perhaps the most common type of animal used in pet therapy programs. They are highly social animals that are known for their loyalty, affection, and ability to form strong bonds with humans. Their playful and energetic nature makes them a popular choice for interacting with residents in nursing homes.

Cats are another popular choice for pet therapy programs. They are known for their calming and comforting presence, and their purring is believed to have therapeutic benefits for humans. Cats are often used with residents who prefer a quieter and more relaxed atmosphere.

Birds are also used in pet therapy programs, particularly parrots and cockatiels. These birds are highly intelligent and can learn to mimic human speech, providing a source of entertainment and amusement for residents. Their colorful plumage and cheerful chirping can also brighten up the atmosphere of a nursing home.

Rabbits, guinea pigs, and other small animals can also be used in pet therapy programs. These animals are often kept in cages or pens and can be easily transported to different locations within a nursing home. Their soft fur and gentle nature can provide a soothing and tactile experience for residents.

Some nursing homes may also use farm animals in their pet therapy programs, such as horses, goats, or chickens. These animals can provide a unique and stimulating experience for residents who may not have had much exposure to farm animals in their lives.

Ultimately, the choice of animal used in pet therapy programs will depend on the needs and preferences of the residents. It’s important to choose animals that are friendly, sociable, and comfortable in a variety of environments. Trained handlers or therapists can help to guide interactions between residents and animals and ensure that everyone involved stays safe and happy.

How do nursing homes ensure the safety of residents during pet therapy sessions?

First and foremost, nursing homes should only allow animals that have been properly trained and certified to participate in pet therapy programs. This includes ensuring that the animals are well-behaved, up-to-date on vaccinations, and free from any illnesses or infections.

Trained handlers or therapists should also be present during pet therapy sessions to guide interactions between residents and animals and ensure that everyone involved stays safe and happy.

Nursing homes should also establish clear guidelines and protocols for pet therapy sessions. This can include setting rules for where the animals can go within the nursing home, how long each session should last, and how many residents can participate at once. These guidelines should be communicated clearly to both residents and staff members to ensure that everyone knows what to expect during pet therapy sessions.

It’s also important for nursing homes to conduct regular risk assessments to identify potential hazards or risks associated with pet therapy sessions. This can include assessing the physical environment, such as identifying areas where animals could escape or where residents could trip or fall. Nursing homes should also be aware of any residents who may have allergies, phobias, or other conditions that could be triggered by the presence of animals.

Nursing homes can further ensure the safety of residents during pet therapy sessions by providing proper training and education to staff members. This can include training on how to handle and care for animals, as well as how to recognize and respond to any potential risks or hazards. Staff members should also be trained on how to observe and monitor residents during pet therapy sessions to ensure that everyone is safe and comfortable.

Finally, nursing homes should have policies and procedures in place for handling any emergencies or incidents that may occur during pet therapy sessions. This can include having first aid kits and emergency supplies readily available, as well as clear communication channels for contacting medical professionals or emergency services if necessary.

Are there any potential risks or downsides to participating in pet therapy programs?

One of the main risks associated with pet therapy programs is the possibility of injury or infection. While therapy animals are typically well-trained and certified, there is always a risk of an animal scratching or biting a resident, particularly if the animal becomes agitated or scared.

Additionally, animals can carry germs and bacteria that could lead to infections, particularly among residents with weakened immune systems.

Another potential downside of pet therapy programs is the risk of triggering allergies or phobias among residents. Some individuals may have severe allergies to certain types of animals, such as dogs or cats, which could lead to serious health complications. Others may have phobias or fears of animals, which could cause extreme anxiety or distress during pet therapy sessions.

There is also the risk of overstimulation or exhaustion among residents. While pet therapy sessions can be very beneficial, they can also be physically and mentally taxing for some individuals, particularly those with cognitive or physical impairments. Additionally, if too many residents participate in a single session, it could become overwhelming for both the animals and the residents.

Another potential downside of pet therapy programs is the cost involved. While some therapy animal organizations may offer their services for free or at a reduced cost, others may charge a fee for their services. Nursing homes may also incur additional costs associated with providing proper training and education for staff members, as well as purchasing supplies and equipment for pet therapy sessions.

Finally, it’s important to consider the ethical implications of using animals for therapeutic purposes. While therapy animals are typically well-cared for and well-trained, some individuals may feel uncomfortable with the idea of using animals in this way. It’s important to ensure that therapy animals are treated with respect and dignity and that their welfare is prioritized.

Can residents with allergies or phobias of animals still benefit from pet therapy?

The answer is yes, but it requires a bit of creativity and planning. For residents with allergies, nursing homes can consider using hypoallergenic breeds of animals or animals that are less likely to trigger allergies, such as birds or fish. Additionally, residents with allergies could wear a mask during pet therapy sessions to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction.

For residents with phobias of animals, nursing homes can consider alternative forms of pet therapy that do not involve direct contact with animals, such as animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted activities involve interactions with animals that do not involve therapeutic goals but can still provide companionship and improve mood.

Another alternative for residents with phobias of animals is to gradually introduce them to therapy animals in a controlled and safe environment. This can involve having therapy animals in a separate room and gradually bringing them closer to the resident over time. This process can be done at the resident’s pace and can help them feel more comfortable and less anxious around animals.

It’s important to note that the benefits of pet therapy are not solely based on direct contact with animals. For example, simply observing animals or spending time in a room with therapy animals can have a positive impact on residents’ well-being. 

Additionally, the presence of therapy animals can help create a calming and relaxing environment, which can be beneficial for all residents, even those with allergies or phobias of animals.

How do nursing homes select and train the animals used in pet therapy programs?

First, it’s important to note that not all animals are suitable for pet therapy programs in nursing homes. The animals must be calm, friendly, and well-behaved, with a temperament that is suitable for interacting with older adults. Dogs and cats are the most common animals used in pet therapy programs, but other animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and even miniature horses can also be used.

Nursing homes typically partner with organizations that specialize in pet therapy programs. These organizations are responsible for selecting and training the animals used in the programs. The animals undergo extensive training to ensure that they are well-behaved and able to interact with residents positively and safely.

During the training process, animals are socialized to interact with people of all ages, including older adults who may have mobility or cognitive challenges. They are also trained to remain calm and relaxed in potentially stressful situations, such as being surrounded by a group of people or being touched by multiple individuals at once.

Additionally, animals used in pet therapy programs must be up-to-date on their vaccinations and have a clean bill of health from a veterinarian. This is to ensure the safety of both the animals and the residents they interact with.

It’s also important to note that animals used in pet therapy programs are not pets that residents can adopt or take home with them. These animals are owned and cared for by the organizations that provide the pet therapy services.


Pet therapy is a valuable tool for promoting the health and well-being of nursing home residents. The benefits of pet therapy, such as reducing loneliness and depression, improving physical health, providing emotional support, increasing social interaction, and promoting a sense of purpose, can have a significant impact on the lives of elderly residents.

If you have a loved one in a nursing home, consider inquiring about whether they offer pet therapy programs. If you are interested in volunteering with pet therapy programs in your community, contact local animal shelters or nursing homes to find out how you can get involved.

Pets have a special way of bringing joy, comfort, and companionship to our lives, and it’s wonderful to see them making a difference in the lives of nursing home residents as well.

Have you or a loved one experienced the benefits of pet therapy in a nursing home setting? I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!

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