For the elderly with dementia, depression declines after they interact with a therapy animal. As well as being wonderful companions, pets also provide significant health benefits to their owners.
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Pets make us happy. They provide unconditional love and comfort. For the elderly with dementia, depression declines after they interact with a therapy animal.

As well as being wonderful companions, pets also provide significant health benefits to their owners.

Research indicates that pet owners are healthier, less stressed, and happier. Sadly, it is not feasible for all residents in care facilities to own one. In this case, the best alternative is to organise a pet dog to visit residents regularly.

Pet Therapy: For Pet Lovers Only!

Be aware that visiting pets are not for everyone. Participant group should be composed of residents who love pets and/or have previously owned pets. There are many people who are allergic to pet fur, fear animals or have a particular dislike for certain animals and would be uncomfortable with such an activity.

A resident’s family dog should be suitable provided it has a good temperament.

Related: Pet Therapy with a Dog

Note: Residents going through late stage dementia may be better suited with simulated/robotic pets. Simulated pets can move their heads and make noises. Unfortunately they are rather expensive to purchase however once you have one there is no ongoing expense.

Pet Therapy for the Elderly

For seniors, pets may actually help them live a happier, healthier life. Contact with pets on a regular basis has been shown to improve cognitive functioning, balance emotional concerns and increase feelings of enthusiasm and interest.

Pets also provide other intangibles.
"Dogs - and other pets - live very much in the here and now. They don't worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person. By having an animal with that sense of now, it tends to rub off on people," - Dr. Jay P. Granat, a New Jersey psychotherapist.

Pet Therapy in Nursing Homes

The role of pets is particularly significant for those who live in a nursing home or in some form of assisted care. Numerous studies show pets provide one of the few interventions capable of permanently lifting the atmosphere of nursing homes.

Research undertaken in nursing homes shows pets may actually delay the aging process. This is achieved through increased physical exercise and socialisation and increased mental functioning attained through talking to pets and having the responsibility of caring for them.

Pets also boost the activity levels of the elderly, and dogs especially help people keep an active routine providing a reason to get up in the morning.

What is Pet Therapy?

Pet Therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy. It is now a growing field in Nursing Homes, Hospitals and Special Schools to help people recover and/or cope with health issues.

The Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors

  • Combat Loneliness
  • Reduce feelings of hopelessness
  • Instill a sense of purpose
  • Boost activity levels
  • Reduce stress and alleviate depression
  • Provide a reason to stay independent as long as possible
  • Positive interactions with pets translates into positive human interactions

Related: 10+ Benefits of Pet Therapy

3 ways to introduce Pet Therapy into Nursing Homes

Even though most facilities do not allow residents to live with their own pets, most of them will embrace Pet Therapy by:

  • Allowing relatives to bring pets for visits
  • Having a live in pet (or pets) to share among residents
  • Hiring ‘Pet Therapists’ from professional companies

My experience with live-in pets at a nursing home

The last facility I worked at had two small dogs and this worked wonderfully. The dogs were a source of immense pleasure to residents.

When the idea of housing our own pets first came up, we consulted with Management and Residents. Following this, our manager purchased two puppies - Miniature Schnauzers - and Activity staff took over from there.

  • The Activity Coordinator called a meeting to establish ‘duties’ for every shift and designate staff to take care of the dogs (at least two staff members per shift). Nevertheless, it was a foregone conclusion (often emphasized at Staff Meetings) that the pets were the responsibility of all activity staff members.
  • Our pets were ‘inside’ pets and although they were toilet trained, in winter, staff took them outdoors for toilet breaks to avoid accidents.
  • We sought volunteers to take the dogs to visit the Veterinarian, Hair salon and Puppy school/ training when needed. We had more volunteers than we needed among relatives of our residents!
  • Our pets were taken to the local park for a walk with volunteers once a week (usually on the weekends). Otherwise our backyard/garden was large and secure enough for them to run around in.
  • A playpen was donated to keep the dogs enclosed when necessary.
  • We had a Veterinarian Assistant teach us how to administer a tablet or capsule to a dog.
  • One long-standing staff member volunteered to take care of pet-worming and flea treatments as required.
  • Our dogs were trained to obey commands such as: ‘sit’, ‘heel’, ‘fetch’, ‘down’, ‘roll over’, and ‘shake’.
  • We had both dogs neutered before entering the facility.
  • Every new staff member would be given a copy of the ‘Pet Care Plan’ to get acquainted with.

Common (but minor!) problems with live-in pets

Of course there were setbacks along the way , and we took them in our stride. Our Coordinator was a very wise and diplomatic person who dealt with every problem tactfully.

  • Some Activity staff resented cleaning up the odd ‘mess’ and cleaning staff refused to do so in principle. We had a meeting on the subject and came to a consensus: Activity staff would pick up stools and wipe away urine and then notify Cleaning Staff so they could disinfect the area.
  • Some staff members leaned too much on others to do their pet care duties which caused discontent.
  • Some residents monopolized the dogs and altercations ensued.
  • Some visitors disapproved of dogs and voiced their annoyance.
  • We had problems with the dogs barking at newcomers and had to buy ultrasonic bark control devices for them because keeping them out of the Reception area proved too difficult.
  • We had problems with residents feeding them inappropriate food. Everyone thought the dogs ‘were starving’ at all times!

Pet Therapy Activities to get started with

We ran four activities with our pets, and we integrated them into our Activity Program. They were:

  • Throw & Fetch - with a Frisbee or rubber ball; it took place in our backyard twice a week and if volunteers were available we would go to the local park.
  • Tug of War - a soft toy or a towel is given to the dog to hold at one end while a resident holds on the other side.
  • Bathing - This activity was very popular; we bathed the dogs fortnightly in a baby bath tub and seated residents close by. Residents enjoyed ‘helping’ out.
  • Grooming - Our Pets loved to be groomed and anytime they saw a resident with the brush they would rush to them.

Related: Pet Therapy: Washing a dog

Creating a roster to effectively care for pets

Apart from feeding, there was not much to be done during the day except from keeping a general look out for the pets. This included watching out for any signs of illness, observing whether they had fleas and getting them out of trouble. The two shifts at my facility shared the following duties from Sunday to Sunday.

Roster for 9am to 3pm shift – Denise and Rommie

9:30 am – Pets fed dry food and water bowl refreshed.

Soiled areas to be wiped clean by Activity staff.

Pets are to be kept out of meals area.

In an emergency staff will call:

  • Veterinarian for advice or
  • Volunteers for assistance
  • Phone numbers listed in ‘Pet Care Plan’

Roster for shift 3pm to 9pm shift – Jack and Bella

6:00 pm – Pets fed wet food and water bowl refreshed.

8:30 pm – Staff make sure the dogs are in their beds before leaving.

Pets are to be kept out of meals area.

Soiled areas to be wiped clean by Activity staff.

In an emergency staff will call:

  • Veterinarian for advice or
  • Volunteers for assistance
  • Phone numbers listed in ‘Pet Care Plan’

Final Thoughts...

This was my experience with small dogs in a nursing home setting; I hope it will give you some ideas.

At the same facility we had a chicken coop with 7 chickens. We took residents in wheelchairs to get the eggs every morning; much to their delight.

Related: Living Eggs Chick Hatching Program

I also worked in a Hostel where a couple of residents had budgerigars in cages in their rooms. The residents would bring the birds once a week to the recreation area for others to enjoy. Conversations were generally very animated, with suggestions, much laughter, reminiscing, and lots anecdotes and stories about pets.

Cats are also wonderful pets despite being very independent animals. If you are considering cats it is a good idea to get them just after weaning so they can learn to interact with people and become a ‘lap’ cats instead of indifferent cats.

Whatever your plans, you have to start with the blessing of Management and follow the rules and regulations at your facility.

I wish you the best of luck!

Below is an example of a ‘Pet Care Plan’ for small dogs.

We'd love to hear your feedback.
What has been your experience with pets in nursing homes?

Files Included:

Pet Care Plan


Activities - Bedingfeld Park Inc 20th Mar 2016
We are very fortunate, as one of our hotel staff members has 2 small beautiful, well behaved little dogs that trot around after her all during her shifts. They are more than happy to sit a while here and there when invited to an offering lap. The residents (and staff) love to have them here. Our Activities Coordinator also recently had chicken eggs delivered, along with all the necessary equipment to care for these eggs through the hatching process and until the chicks were a week old. This was a huge hit with all the residents! I have been on the lookout for something else we can try, and I am wondering if anyone has a hermit crab house? I think I will look into it ..... growing hermit crabs also need extra shells made available for them as they outgrow their old ones, and I thought it could be fun to have some residents paint these,
Talita 21st Mar 2016
Oh yes you are fortunate, your two little dogs sound lovely! Please share a photo of them with some residents if you can. I've never heard of a hermit crab house - that certainly sounds interesting! Was the chicken hatching program you used called Living Eggs by any chance?
Helen 16th Feb 2016
We are so lucky to be a country nursing home and we have two miniature ponies who live in a specially built paddock and stable on premises, one of our residents feeds and grooms the ponies daily and checks and fills their water , we have a special built pathway and large area with table and chairs and open space that sits beside the fence under the trees which brings great joy to the ponies, residents, visitors and our community alike, one pony has been specially trained with scooters and wheelchairs and happily enters the building with me and loves the attention, he has an incredible ability to seek out and settle residents who are restless and we have even had a residents who didn't normally vocalize talk to him, we have competed at shows and some residents are accompanied by volunteers and staff to the shows and they are delighted when our babes bring home ribbons. we have also had a couple of foals which are just too cute to describe and at stand about 19 inches so are perfect lap ponies, bit different to the average dog but the residents love them and enjoy watching their tricks and their training, I do supervise the overall care with vets, poopy scooping, worming and farriers etc, but they are our pride and very much loved, Helen .
Mary Ann 8th Sep 2015
Margaret, thanks for sharing your beautiful story.

In my facility we have a dog visiting the residents every Monday and I am lucky that the therapy dog Cassey and her handler visit my wing first. The residents absolutely love her, they appear more alert, generally happy and content. These feelings seem to last till the last programmed activity for the morning and participation and enjoyment are much higher . I am not quite sure if this is also an effect of Pet Therapy but I have observed that the residents who interact with Cassey eat better at lunch time. Casey's visits also make way for a group discussion and reminiscing.
Shelley 25th Aug 2015
I have heard from many professionals, and seen for myself, the transformation people make around animals. There is a safety net that surrounds the interaction. There is no judgment, no tone of voice, and no disappointment. If we can try to keep this in mind while interacting with someone with dementia, and provide that safety net, the engagement will have more meaning, and a higher level of success.
Nicola 16th Jun 2015
I look after a day centre and would love to have my own dog, which is pet therapy approved. How would I go about getting my own dog that I can take with me to work? Can anyone suggest anywhere or somewhere that would "test" the dog to make sure I have the dog covered as well as myself in a day centre setting?
Margaret 2nd Jun 2015
i am Activity coordinator and adpoted an 11 year old West Highland Terrier called Bede 7 months ago from the RSPCA. He comes to work with me. He is my responsibility.
I am passionate about the benifits of having animals in aged care.
The following shows why
Comment from resident 7/1/15
Mrs X called me aside in the Lovell dining room to thank me for bringing the dog Bede to work with me.
"It is good just to see him around, it makes me feel good anyway and all the people say they like him. Thanks for bringing him to work with you, it makes it more like a home.

Bede at work November 2014
A resident is this week going through significant changes in her dementia.
When she first came to live in the home three years ago she was very bright, she had her small dog, a white Maltese X . Eventually a staff member took the old dog home when the resident could no longer manage her. The dog died aged fourteen.
During this last week the resident has been confused as to time, place, who people are, who she and is thus very anxious and does not settle for more than a few minutes at a time.
Yesterday as her mobility has declined staff brought her along to a concert she used to enjoy. One of the staff sat with her but still she was anxious and unsettled.
I went and got Bede and with him on my knee facing her I sat next to her.
Immediately she began talking quieter about the lovely little dog. She leaned towards Bede and patted him gently. Her eyes focused on his face, her hand went back to her lap. She continued to look into Bede's eyes. For his part Bede leaned forward and gave her nose a gentle lick. She looked at me then and said proudly "the little dog likes me".
For the next 25 mins till the concert ended she gazed at Bede's face. Not once did she look at the entertainers or anything else. In her confusion she had found a point of stability, she had found a body memory of a little white dogs love. Her breathing slowed, her body and her mind had found peace for a time.
After the concert I told her I was taking Bede to the garden while we served afternoon tea. She didn't mind, she understood that dogs like to go to the garden.
20 mins later when I wheeled her back to her room she was still relaxed and settled.
It was a small moment when Bede met the Lady, when their eyes linked but it gave her unconditional acceptance and peace. A very precious gift indeed.

Bede at work February this year - After lunch myself and Bede were going to the office when Bede took a detour, he went into the room of a resident who has begun the final journey. Bede walked into his room and sat down. Two of the residents family were sitting, one either side of the bed. They told the resident that Bede had come in for a visit.
The resident who is on a morphine drip did not respond. The family asked me to put Bede on the bed. Which I did, Bede remained calm and went into the drop position, the family member told the resident that Bede was on the bed.
Nothing happened. Stillness. Bede continued to sit, then the residents hand reached out to Bede and without opening their eyes the resident began to stroke Bede’s head over and over. The other hand reached out and again patted Bede. This went on for a few minutes, just an everyday action but now imbued with so much meaning. The family members cried, I cried and Bede remained totally centred within the union of himself and the dying resident.

Robyn 17th Mar 2015
We have adopted two cats in our dementia wing which have proved to be a great asset to our facility. Both cats have been desexed are wormed and given flea treatment on a regular basis. One resident in particular regularly requests the company of a cat on his bed at night when he cannot sleep and the staff oblige by bringing in the cat to spend time with the resident. We find that this has prevented this resident from continually walking around the facility all hours of the night. The cats roam around on their own free will but are locked out at meal times. It makes me feel good when I see a resident sitting on the verandah nursing one of the cats and talking to it like it is one of their family.. We should remember that a lot of residents come into aged care facilities and have to leave their pets which can cause unhappiness. If we can bring just a little bit of pleasure to our residents then I say go for it.
Irma 26th Feb 2015
I bring my dog to work every day since she was 9 weeks old. I am the allied health service manager and she is the most popluar staff member of all. Her name is Missy (now 18 months old ) and she is a ShihTzu. The residents absolutely love her. I just take her with me where ever I go and she walks along enjoying all the pats and cuddles. If I have to leave her home for some reason everyone misses her! Whenever a resident sees me, he/she will look down to search for Missy and they are quite upset if she is not there. She has made a differnce to the home's atmosphere and we cannot imagine a home without a pet.


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