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From Therapy Dogs to Robot Seals: How Pet Therapy Can Benefit Seniors

Therapy dogs have long been recognized for their ability to provide comfort and promote healing. But did you know that a whole host of other species are beginning to fulfill this important role? These days, the companionship of cats, birds, rabbits, and even robotic animals is being utilized to benefit older adults in numerous therapeutic ways.

Pet therapy for elderly people can boost their well-being and improve their physical, mental, and emotional functioning. Interacting with a kind and affectionate animal can lower people's stress levels, help them become more active, and bring them out of their shells. This can be immensely helpful to seniors who are struggling with loneliness or dealing with health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, or dementia.

The information below will help you understand the various aspects of pet therapy and how it can improve the lives of older adults. You'll learn about the therapeutic role played by dogs and an increasingly wide range of other animal species. You'll gain a better understanding of the unique functions of therapy animals, service animals, and emotional support animals. And you'll get an introduction to the many benefits of robotic pets.

What Is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy is a general term that refers to the use of animals for treatment and companionship. It encompasses both animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities. While these two terms are closely related, they are not technically the same thing.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) draws on the aid of animals for therapeutic treatment. It is structured to meet specific therapy goals and is overseen by a health professional who has a keen understanding of the way humans and animals interact. The professional documents each session and tracks patient progress. For instance, a physical therapist might ask an elderly man who is recovering from a stroke to brush a dog's coat or toss a ball to a dog as a way of regaining the mobility in his hands.

Animal-assisted activities (AAA) are more free-form, and they are conducted without any specific treatment goals in mind. Typically, specially trained therapy dogs or cats provide comfort and cheer to elderly people by visiting hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and assisted living facilities. Facility staff generally provide some guidance and assistance, but they don't keep formal notes.

Essentially, "pet therapy" refers to guided human-animal interactions that are meant to help improve people's quality of life.

What Pet Therapy Can Do for Seniors

Having animals around can benefit seniors in a whole host of ways. For instance, walking a dog is obviously good exercise. Feeding, brushing, and caring for a pet can also help a senior feel needed and purposeful. Plus, the total acceptance and unconditional love that animals give can go a long way toward lowering people's stress levels and helping shift their focus away from their own problems. Indeed, animal-assisted therapy in nursing homes is becoming increasingly widespread as more and more studies confirm its effectiveness in combating loneliness and depression in older adults.1, 2

Take patients suffering from dementia for example. Research has found that animals can reduce agitation and stress in people with this condition. In one study, having a specially trained dog come to live in an Alzheimer's care unit resulted in a significant drop in behavioral issues among the residents.3 And a separate study found that Alzheimer's patients living in nursing homes got more nutrition and gained more weight when fish aquariums were set up in the facility for residents to look at during meal times.4

Animal-assisted therapy benefits for seniors can also include:

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Reduced feelings of anxiety and isolation
  • Decreased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Improved motor skills
  • Increased social interaction
  • Stimulated memory as seniors reminisce about pets they used to have
  • Quicker recovery time from injuries
  • Higher levels of physical activity

The Role of Therapy Dogs

Research has shown that dogs are attuned to human emotional states and will seek to help people in distress.5 So it's not surprising that therapy dogs are good for easing anxiety in and providing comfort to older adults. Dogs are used in therapy to offer companionship and affection and enhance people's physical and mental health.

Commonly, dog therapy programs involve volunteer animals and their handlers coming to spend time with elderly people in hospitals and nursing homes. When a therapy dog visits, the seniors might feed, pet, groom, walk, or play with the animal. These interactions can help speed a senior's recovery from illness or injury or just help lift his or her spirits. Some long-term care facilities have therapy dogs that live on-site and are handled by a trained staff member; in such cases, residents often work together to care for the animals. Other facilities arrange for pet visits from local volunteers or organizations.

Did you know you can also arrange for therapy dog home visits? Organizations like Therapy Dogs International and Alliance of Therapy Dogs offer free services whereby a volunteer handler and therapy dog make periodic visits to seniors who still live in their own homes but are lonely, isolated, or struggling with physical impairments.

To be effective as therapy dogs, the animals must be patient, obedient, calm, friendly, well-socialized, and even-tempered. They must welcome being petted and cuddled by unfamiliar people and take direction well. In addition, a therapy dog trainer must ensure that the dogs become acclimated to equipment like canes, walkers, wheelchairs, and motorized beds. And dogs that work with dementia patients must be comfortable with the mood swings that people with this condition frequently exhibit.

While any breed of dog can be a therapy dog, some breeds are noted for their suitability to serve. Some of the most frequently used dogs for therapy include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, St. Bernards, beagles, poodles, pugs, Boston terriers, and greyhounds. (Read more about dog breeds that are well-suited for seniors.)

The law does not mandate that therapy dogs be certified. However, some facilities will only accept dogs that have received formal training and are registered with a therapy dog organization. Here are a few examples of organizations that register or certify therapy dogs:

It's important to understand that a certified therapy dog is not the same as a service dog. Learn more about the differences.

Other Types of Therapy Animals

While dogs are the most common type of pet used in animal therapy, a growing number of other species are also performing this kind of work. For instance, cats can be good for therapy. They are the only animals that purr, and cuddling with a purring cat can soothe a person's mood. Plus, studies have demonstrated that when cats purr, they produce a sound frequency that is ideal for promoting bone growth and healing in humans.6

Almost any animal can be a therapy animal if it has the right temperament and training. Love on a Leash certifies cats, dogs, and rabbits as therapy pets. Pet Partners provides therapy animal training and registration for nine different species: Dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, llamas, rats, birds, and miniature pigs can all be used for pet therapy. And Maryland-based non-profit organization Pets on Wheels accepts any breed or species for its therapy teams so long as the animal passes a temperament screening and health check.

Therapy Animals vs. Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals

These three types of assistance animals play separate and distinctive roles.

Therapy animals

A therapy animal is a pet that has been trained to interact with and provide comfort to a wide range of people in different environments. As noted above, therapy animals for seniors are not limited to just dogs; they can be cats, horses, birds, or many other species. Although they provide a valuable service, pets that are involved in therapy work do not have any special rights under the law and can only enter businesses and facilities that they have been invited into, or that allow animals in general.

Service animals

A service animal goes through extensive training in order to render specific assistance to a person with a physical or mental disability. Under federal law, only dogs (and in some circumstances, miniature horses) qualify as service animals. Service dogs for seniors can perform tasks such as:

  • Guiding a person with low vision
  • Alerting a person with diabetes to changing blood sugar levels
  • Providing balance and stability help to a person with mobility challenges
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Reminding a person with a mental disorder to take his or her medication
  • Helping a person stay safe during an epileptic seizure
  • Alerting a hearing-impaired person when someone is approaching
  • Keeping a person with dementia from walking out of the house unaccompanied

Service dogs are considered working dogs, not pets. They stay with their handlers at all times and are protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Service dogs are legally permitted to accompany their human handlers into public places like stores, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, buses, and airplanes. They also have full access to housing complexes that would not normally allow pets.

While service dogs do not have to wear any special ID tags or vests, doing so can head off unnecessary questions. (A vest or harness can also let people know that the animal is performing an important task and should not be petted.) You should be aware that business owners and employers cannot ask service dog handlers to provide details about the handler's disability. They can only ask if the dog is a service animal required for a disability and what specific service the dog has been trained to render.

In cases where the ADA conflicts with state laws, whichever law offers broader protections will generally apply. For example, Ohio service dog laws stipulate that assistance dogs must be leashed in public places, whereas the ADA allows service dogs to be off leash if being leashed would interfere with the work the dogs are trained to do. (However, the handler must still maintain control of the animal through voice commands or other signals). In such a case, the ADA's more flexible provisions preempt the state regulations.

If you're interested in getting a service dog for yourself or someone you love, you can search for non-profit service animal organizations in your area on the website of Assistance Dogs International.

Emotional support animals

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are sometimes known as comfort animals. They are pets that provide therapeutic benefits to individuals who have a diagnosed emotional or mental disability. Unlike a therapy animal that is trained to bring comfort to many people, an emotional support animal supports one specific person. And unlike a service animal that is rigorously trained to perform a specific task, an ESA simply provides companionship and comfort, and it requires no specialized training.

In order to qualify for an ESA, you need a recommendation letter from a licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist, clinical social worker, or psychiatrist. The professional must certify that you suffer from a specific mental health condition that affects your daily activities and that an emotional support animal will help alleviate one or more of the symptoms of your condition. Such letters must be renewed every year.

Under the ADA, pets that function as emotional support animals are not entitled to any special protection and cannot go into any building or facility where animals are not allowed. However, under the Fair Housing Act, even housing facilities that have a no-pet rule must allow your ESA to live with you. The landlord or housing provider can ask to see your official recommendation letter. Similarly, the Air Carrier Access Act allows your emotional support animal to accompany you into aircraft cabins for free, provided you have a legitimate recommendation letter. (Some airlines require 48 hours' notice as well as verification of your animal's health and obedience training in order to accommodate it as an ESA, so make sure to check your particular carrier's requirements before your flight.)

Unfortunately, some people claim that their pets are emotional support animals even when they aren't. And plenty of disreputable online sites claim to provide recommendation letters quickly and easily for a fee. To be sure you receive a legitimate letter, talk to the healthcare professional who is treating you.

How Robotic Pets for Adults Can Make a Difference

Many older adults enjoy the companionship of animals but can't have any of their own because they have allergies or reside in facilities that don't allow pets. Others simply don't want or can't handle the responsibility of caring for a living creature. In such cases, the ideal solution may be a robotic animal. After all, robots are easily controlled, don't need to be fed or cleaned up after, and don't shed or transmit any diseases. And research studies have demonstrated that robotic pets have the ability to improve the quality of life for older adults.7, 8

For instance, Hasbro's Joy for All Companion Pet line was designed to bring comfort and happiness to older adults through engaging interactions with realistic robotic pets. The line includes both cat and dog models, each of which has soft fur, blinking eyes, and limbs that move.

The Joy for All cat, which launched in 2015 and costs $99.99, purrs and meows like a real feline and features built-in sensors in its cheek, back, belly, and head that enable it to respond to human touch. It will nuzzle your hand or even roll over on its back to request a belly rub. It might squirm a bit, but it can't get up and walk around. If left alone for a few minutes, it will drift off to sleep.

The dog model was released in 2016 and costs $119.99. Built to resemble a golden retriever puppy, the dog includes sensors that prompt it to nuzzle your hand when you touch its cheek. If you gently pet the puppy's back, you will even feel a simulated heartbeat. The dog will also turn its head in response to your voice and make realistic barking and puppy sounds.

Hasbro has partnered with researchers at Brown University to expand the abilities of the Joy for All pets through artificial intelligence. Armed with a $1-million grant from the National Science Foundation, the group is working toward enabling the robotic pets to perform tasks like locating lost objects and reminding seniors to take their medication. The project has been dubbed Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support (ARIES), and researchers say the word "affordable" is key: While no price has yet been set, the hope is to keep it to just a few hundred dollars.

One robotic pet that has long utilized advanced artificial intelligence is PARO the seal. Specifically designed as a therapy animal to comfort people with dementia, PARO resembles a baby harp seal and is remarkably lifelike, with soft white fur, paws that move, and eyes that follow people's movements. It can seek out eye contact, remember faces, respond to touch, and even learn its own name. PARO also gradually learns to repeat behaviors that result in petting.

With a price tag of $5,000 to $6,000, the PARO seal is generally too expensive to be a personal pet. But it is a popular addition to dozens of hospices, long-term care facilities, hospitals, and senior living communities throughout North America. In 2009, it even became certified as a therapeutic medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Research has revealed that interacting with the PARO robot makes nursing home residents happier, less lonely, less stressed, more social, and more active.9, 10 One study even found that the use of PARO reduced the need for psychotropic medications in almost two-thirds of cases where such medications were being considered.11

Harness the Healing Power of Animals

As you can see, therapy dogs are far from the only animals that can provide companionship and promote healing. And with the range of available options, from visits with live animals to sessions with robotic creatures, you can enjoy the benefits of pet therapy in any setting.

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