Pawsitive Pet Therapy

How Interacting with Animals Can Benefit Older Adults

Pet therapy provides many benefits for older adults

Why Pet Therapy?

As we age, staying healthy and active becomes increasingly important. While exercise and a healthy diet are crucial for physical well-being, mental and emotional health are just as essential. That’s where pet therapy comes in. Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, involves interacting with trained animals to help improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being.


The benefits of time spent with animals for older adults are many. Here are just a few:

  • Decreased stress and anxiety: Simply petting an animal can help reduce stress and anxiety levels for anyone. According to a study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, interacting with dogs for just a few minutes can significantly reduce stress levels in older adults.
  • Improved physical health: Staying active is a key to healthy aging. Interacting with animals can lead to increased physical activity, improved mobility, better cardiovascular health, and reduced pain.
  • Enhanced socialization: Pet therapy programs offer much more than sweet snuggles and pets. Older adults who participate in pet therapy programs also have the opportunity to meet and interact with other people who share their love of animals.
  • Increased cognitive function: Interacting with pets has been shown to improve memory, attention, and problem-solving skills in older adults in general. But according to a review published in Frontiers in Psychology, pet therapy can also improve memory, attention, and problem-solving skills in older adults with cognitive impairment.

Therapy Animals and Handlers

So, what types of animals are used in pet therapy programs? Dogs are the most common, but cats, birds, rabbits, and even horses can also be used.

Handler/pet teams are an essential component of programs. Teams consist of a handler (typically the pet owner) and a specially trained animal that provides therapy to individuals.

Handlers of therapy animals typically undergo training to ensure that they and their animal are well-prepared to provide safe and effective therapy. This training includes education on animal behavior, communication, and safety protocols. Additionally, handlers should also have a thorough understanding of the specific needs of the population they will be working with, whether it be older adults, children, or individuals with disabilities.

The animals themselves must also undergo training to become certified therapy animals. This training often includes socialization, obedience training, and exposure to a variety of environments and stimuli to ensure that the animal remains calm and well-behaved in a therapy setting.

To become certified as a therapy team, both the handler and animal must pass an in-person test administered by a therapy pet organization like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. These tests typically include evaluations of the animal’s behavior, obedience, and temperament, as well as the handler’s ability to communicate and work effectively with the animal.

Getting Started

If you’re interested in incorporating pet therapy into your life, here are some tips to get started:

  • Find a local pet therapy program: Many hospitals, nursing homes, and community centers offer pet therapy programs. Ask your doctor or local senior center for recommendations. Most pet therapy occurs in group settings, however, with a little digging, you may be able to find a team willing to do a home visit.
  • Consider adopting a pet: If you’re able to care for a pet, adopting one can provide many of the same benefits as pet therapy. Just be sure to choose a pet that suits your lifestyle, abilities, and needs.
  • Volunteer at an animal shelter: If you can’t adopt a pet, consider volunteering at an animal shelter. Not only will you get to interact with animals, but you’ll also be helping to improve their lives.
  • Visit a cat café: All over the country, we are seeing cat cafés pop up where get some kitty time to go with your coffee! Not only is this a fun and interesting outing for people, but a way to support cat rescue and rehoming organizations. A quick Google search of “cat cafés near me” will help you to find one.
  • Talk to your doctor: If you have any health concerns, be sure to talk to your doctor before participating in pet therapy.

Become a Therapy Team

Learn more about registering and providing therapy with your pet.:

Alliance Of Therapy Dogs (ATD) is Based in Wyoming. ATD provides testing, certification, registration, support, and insurance for volunteer members nationwide. Members volunteer with dogs to visit hospitals, special needs centers, schools, nursing homes, and other facilities.

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Liz Craven
Author: Liz Craven

Liz Craven, along with her husband Wes, owns Pro-Ad Media, publisher of Sage Aging ElderCare Guide, serving the local community for over 28 years. Liz lives in Lakeland and is very active in the local community, specifically in the area of aging. Liz serves on a number of local boards and committees including the Lakeland Vision and Age Friendly Lakeland.