What is Pet Therapy

Pet Therapy for the Elderly – Your Ultimate Guide

Pet therapy for the elderly has become a popular method of mild therapy for senior citizens ( [i]). In fact, the documented benefits of interaction with pets are mental, emotional, and even physical. From pet therapy for depression, to pet therapy for anxiety, dementia, and more, the type of therapy can vary depending on the needs of the elderly.

While ownership therapy – where an aging loved one living at home has a pet in the house, is proven to be the most effective type of pet therapy ([ii]), it is only really an option for seniors who are in relatively good health and who can take care of the animal themselves or have in-home care assistance to help them look after their pet.

In this article we are going to explore:


What is Pet Therapy for the Elderly?

Not only do furry friends offer unconditional love and companionship, emerging research ([iii]) suggests that they have the ability to boost general health and well-being, especially in senior citizens. Pet therapy, also referred to as animal assisted therapy, is a kind of therapy that uses pets as a form of companionship and treatment. The aim of therapy could be to improve a senior’s emotional, social, or cognitive abilities.

Pet therapy is usually offered in a range of settings, including retirement living, community care, residential aged care homes, hospices, rehabilitation centers, and in a senior’s own home. Animals used for the therapy can range from domesticated pets to beautiful farm animals.
Pet therapy for an elder person

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A Few Fast Facts

Did you know that pet owners tend to:

  • Be less likely to feel lonely
  • Visit the doctor less often
  • Use less medication
  • Recover more quickly from surgery and illness
  • Have lower blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Deal better with stress


The Benefits of Pet Therapy

There are so many benefits of pet therapy for the elderly, including:

  • Improved communication
  • Improved ability to reminisce
  • Pets can encourage and motivate seniors to stay healthy and get more exercise, which also gives them the feeling of being needed
  • Many senior citizens who are unresponsive to other forms of therapy tend to feel livelier and chat more with their pets
  • Animals who have been trained specifically for pet therapy can help seniors improve their motor skills

Pet therapy is by no means a new concept. The benefits of the human-animal bond has been documented for centuries, yet the relationship between a patient and a therapy animal seems to extend way beyond simple companionship. There are also emotional, physical, and mental benefits.

The Emotional Benefits of Pet Therapy

Emotionally, pets can provide the elderly with companionship, as well as:

  • Increased self-esteem since the aging find that they can care for a pet and the animal enjoys spending time with them
  • A sense of gentleness and caring since animals are known to be instinctive nurturers, especially to ailing humans.
  • Increased social interaction with other pet owners and patients
  • Pet therapy for depression and decreased anxiety works by the patient forming a bond with a pet
  • Higher comfort levels when visiting family who have pets
  • Reduced loneliness by spending time with and caring for a pet


The Physical Benefits of Pet Therapy

The physical health benefits of animal assisted therapy usually depend on which kind of therapy is practiced and can include the following:

  • Increased exercise if the pet has considerable exercise needs
  • Increased mobility from petting, walking, and brushing the pet
  • Lowered blood pressure and a reduction in depression, stress, and anxiety from the non-judgmental and gentle nature of the relationship
  • Enhanced physical skills through intensive forms of pert therapy for the elderly, such as swimming with dolphins or riding horses


The Mental Benefits of Pet Therapy

Pet therapy also provides several incredible mental benefits to patients, such as:

  • Mental stimulation through contact with pet handlers
  • Flexibility and planning practice from planning for a pet’s care yet needing to have the flexibility to respond to another creature’s needs
  • Memory stimulation by comparing the therapy pet to other pets

How Pet Therapy Works

Typically, pets first have to undergo a special kind of training before they can be used in pet therapy. The training often involves the pet having to go through a range of likely situations with a trainer so that the pet learns the appropriate behavior and responses. It is important that the animal learns these responses so that they don’t panic when they are faced with a real-life scenario.

Animals that are used for pet therapy purposes also have to:

  • Have basic obedience training
  • Be properly and well socialized, as they may be required to meet new people frequently
  • Understand how to interact with seniors who use wheelchairs, crutches, and other mobility aid


How to Find Pet Therapy Programs?

If you have an aging loved one who you think could benefit from pet therapy for depression and other ailments, or who simply could do with the companionship and you don’t want him or her to have their own pet, you will need to find the right pet therapy program. Different ways to seek out programs include:

Department of human resources

– often, local branches of your community’s department of human resources will have a separate department especially for senior citizen services. The departments tend to have a list of volunteers as well as community resource information pertaining specifically to an elderly person’s welfare and health needs, including animal-assisted therapy.


– a lot of doctors, particularly those who work in geriatric care, will know of different resources for seniors, including pet therapy.

Nursing homes

– usually, nursing homes coordinate with volunteers with regards to the use of animal therapy for their patients and residents. Centers should be able to provide contact information for individuals and organizations who use pets in therapy sessions.

Pet stores

– visit local pet stores who may have information on pet therapy in your areas.

Health departments

– local health departments may have a list of therapy programs in your area.

Before you decide to buy a cat or dog for that special senior in your life, you should try a few things out first. To begin with, if you don’t know how the senior feels about animals, ask. You should also keep in mind that what a person wants and what he or she needs can be separate things. Besides asking your loved one how they feel about a pet, take some time to carefully consider whether or not they are able to take care of the pet, or if there is in-home assistance available.

If having a pet at home doesn’t seem like a possibility, find out if senior centers in your area have programs where animals come to visit a few times a week. They may even hold dog grooming classes as a fun senior activity. While not all seniors may be able to take care of a pet themselves, pet therapy may be just the thing to cheer them up and make them feel wanted.

Variations of Pet Therapy

There are a number of different types of pet therapy and each one delivers different benefits for different things.

Ownership therapy

– pets are proven to be a valuable prescription and often, alternative therapy practices will encourage patients to own pets for the emotional and mental benefits mentioned earlier on. Individuals who do wish to own a pet, though, must carefully consider the requirements and needs to the pet they would like before choosing their new companion.

Visitation therapy

– this is arguably the most familiar kind of pet therapy for the elderly and involves animals – usually dogs or cats – visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and senior centers to spend time with patients and residents. Therefore, residents get to enjoy the animal’s loving attention without having to care for the animal. This is also a benefit for facilities that don’t usually permit pets.

Animal-assisted therapy

– this is by far a more intensive treatment where patients who need extreme rehabilitation are paired with highly sensitive animals, such as horses or dolphins, as part of their therapy regime. Interacting with such animals helps to refine the patient’s physical skills and build their confidence.

Before undergoing pet therapy ([iv]), individuals or their caregivers should consult with a therapist who is familiar with the different approaches to figure out which type of pet therapy for elderly patients would be the most appropriate and beneficial.

The Responsibility of Owning a Pet

If you decide that your aging relative would be able to own a pet, there is a lot to consider, especially when it comes to choice and responsibility.

The benefits of owning a pet for an older relative, whose world may be getting slightly smaller by the day, are wonderful. Affection, stimulation, companionship, and sheer joy are all to be gained with pet ownership, not to mention the health benefits mentioned earlier in this article. However, owning a pet comes with a list of daily responsibilities and chores, and the senior has to be ready and able.

Dogs, particularly, have daily requirements, and the senior or caregiver’s responsibilities will include:

Health concerns

– these can range greatly from the simple act of feeding a healthy dog to more complex issues for the senior pet owner looking after their canine. It’s not uncommon to hear of stories of seniors mixing up their medication with their elderly pet’s medication. What’s more, putting in eye drops, cleaning ears, and giving pills can be daunting for a senior with arthritic fingers or limited mobility.

Access to the outdoors, exercise, and walking the dog

-this is probably one of the biggest concerns of seniors owning pets. While your aging aunty may be keen to walk her dog every day at the age of 70, will she still be able to do so? It’s not unheard of for smaller breeds, like dachshunds to live to 18 years of age!


– from brushing the dog regularly to bathing, finding transportation to a dog parlour, will the senior need help when the easiest of tasks become too hard to handle? It is worth seeking in-home care to help your loved one look after his or her beloved pet.

Interaction with caregivers, neighbor’s, and neighbor’s pets

– how often have you heard of complaints where a dog has been running around and pooping all over the neighborhood, even though there is a leash law in place? Neighbors are usually the first to complain if there is a problem, or to pick up on an issue like a dog dragging its elderly owner down the road!


– buying food for a dog is one thing, but there are vet visits, flea products, dog walking services, and even heartworm prevention to think about. An elderly fixed income may not be able to cover the expenses of owning a pet.

What happens to the pet if the owner dies?

This is a big concern and huge source of anxiety for many older pet owners. Who will look after their pet if they have to leave their home or pass away?

As with other important topics that tend to be overlooked as we age, family members should make a concerted effort to get involved and discuss these issues. It will actually give your beloved relative a great sense of relief, especially when it concerns their most loved four-legged companion. Sadly, relatives and friends often don’t get involved until there is some sort of tragedy.

If your senior relative already has a pet and enjoys the benefits of pet therapy for the elderly, it is a good idea to establish a support system before something happens to your loved one. Family and friends may  find volunteers, pet sitters, pet walkers, and even neighbors, who are prepared to help out for a small fee. What’s more, councils and local groups may be able to help out with feeding pets and grooming them.

Which Pet is Right for You?

Studies have reported the seniors who own pets tend to be sociable, get more exercise, look after themselves better, and pet therapy for depression comes with a range of benefits, too. A senior who lives alone craves responsibility and companionship and a pet is the perfect way to fill this void, while also providing a long and lasting bond.

If you are a senior looking for a furry companion or you want to get a pet for your aging relative, you need to choose carefully. The best pets for seniors are the ones that are compatible with the individual. What this means is that the pet should match the physical health, lifestyle, cognitive ability, and mobility of the person who will be looking after it.

Let us now take a look at the best pets for seniors.


If you would like to find a dog for a senior, the ideal scenario is to find a trained small or toy breed dog. You should be cautious of breed lists as they are only suggestions, and it will depend on the dog and the individual. Also, it is worth noting that you may want to be cautious of finding “just any old” Boston terrier, Maltese poodle, or Chihuahua, just because they have been recommended.

A lot of the smaller breeds of dogs can be yappy, in need of loads of exercise, hard to housetrain, and just as difficult to medicate. Some larger and middle-sized dog breeds tend to be a lot calmer and well-tempered, even if they aren’t quite the right size to sit on your lap. Overall, temperament testing is key.

Overall, dogs do make sensational pet therapy for elders ([v]). Dogs are amazing at becoming in tune with their owners and they love unconditionally without asking for much in return. Just as long as the dogs receive their daily exercise, food, water, affection, and a cozy place to sleep, you can count on having a faithful companion.

For seniors with limited mobility or those who live in a small space, not any dog will do. Adult dogs are ideal as they are usually already housetrained. The best place to find an adult dog is as a rescue group or shelter. Younger people often overlook the older dogs in favor of puppies, so you can give that unwanted senior a home of his own.

The best dog breeds for seniors include:

Mix breed mutts

– older, mix-breed dogs from a shelter are often the best pets for seniors. They are usually already trained and often have less health issues than purebred dogs. The best way to pick a dog out at a pound is to see which one shows the most interest in you. Spend a little time getting to know the dog before making a decision. When you find each other, you will just know.


– these smaller dogs are loyal and affectionate to their owners. They make great watchdogs, but they are not always great around children. If you have grandchildren who visit often, this may not be the right breed for you. It is also worth noting that Maltese dogs require loads of attention, so they cannot be left alone for extended periods of time.

Miniature poodles

– this variety are fun to be around, lively, active, and incredibly affectionate. The small breed is perfect for seniors who are home most of the time and able to play, interact, and walk frequently.

Bichon Frise

– you can identify these dogs easily – they are cuddly little balls of fluff! The Bichon Frise is affectionate, friendly, and has a very stable yet fun personality. It is not a “yappy” type of dog and is usually content living in smaller homes and apartments, just as long as they get regular indoor play and outdoor exercise. This is a dog that needs daily grooming and should be washed frequently to keep their white fur in good condition.

Golden Retriever

– pet therapy for the elderly works well with larger breeds of dogs, too, and if you would prefer a larger dog, you really cannot go wrong with a Golden Retriever. These dogs are known to be gentle, loving, loyal, friendly, and are able to get along with most other dogs and humans. If you are particularly looking for a dog who offers protection in your golden years, this is not the right breed! Golden retrievers are far more likely to lick their intruders than attack them!

Boston Terrier

– Boston Terriers, on the other hand, make exceptional watchdogs. They usually come in three different weight categories, including 20 – 25 pounds, 15 to below 20 pounds, and under 15 pounds. Bostons are knowns to be extremely affectionate and loyal and they are more than happy to be couch potatoes, provided they do get their daily exercise.

Yorkshire Terrier

– silky Yorkshire Terriers will require daily grooming to keep their long locks in shiny and smooth condition. However, you can also get wiry and soft coat Yorkies who do not require quite as much upkeep. Yorkshire Terriers are also happy with apartment living and are more than content to sit on your lap for cuddles. They also make good alarm dogs that will alert you to strangers approaching their territory.

A retired Greyhound

– retired Greyhounds are accustomed to small living spaces, usually having been kept in crates most of their lives. They are content to dwell with their senior owners in apartments but do need to be walked at least daily. Greyhounds are not prone to barking much, but be aware that they do have a strong prey instinct. So, if you have other small animals around, or grandchildren visiting often, she may not be the best choice for your lifestyle.

Service dogs are also a great form of pet therapy for the elderly ([vi]). If the senior has mobility and health issues, a trained service dog can offer great companionship while keeping your elderly relative independent and living in their own home.


Cats are another ideal pet for seniors, ([vii]) particularly if the responsibility of training and owning a dog proves to be too difficult and demanding. Kittens are really cute, but they may also prove too much for an elderly person with failing eyesight or mobility issues.

However, a house-trained, adult cat ([viii]) chosen from a rescue center is a fantastic option. These cats are typically more content to entertain themselves and far more docile in nature. Unlike dogs who are happy to follow you all around, cats will come to you for affection when they want to – it’s all on their own terms.

As for needs, all a cat really needs is food, water, a litter box, a couple of toys, and a scratching post. A place to sit and watch the world go by also goes down well with cats and can keep them entertained for hours.

Cats make a great addition to an elderly household, especially if the elderly person has previous experience with cats. Feline companionship, as most cat lovers know, is intensely rewarding, takes a lot less energy than owning a dog, and is less time consuming, too. Choosing a cat with a nice temper and being able to clean a litter box is pretty much all it takes to enjoy your relationship with a cat.

Elderly people with compromised immune systems or extremely fragile skin will need to do their best to avoid getting scratched. You will also need to ensure that the elderly person will be able to give a cat medication when needed or that they will have in-home care assistance to do so.

What Other Pet Therapy Options Are There?

Cats and dogs are ([ix]) amazing pet therapy options, but there are other options, too. A tamed cockatiel or parakeet (unlike larger birds than tend to live for decades), are also delightful additions and can certainly liven up a quiet household. If a senior person is interested in a bird, it can really be a match made in heaven. Birds can talk back constantly, providing a great deal of entertainment and companionship.

Cockatiels, particularly, can be trained to have large vocabularies, so they really can fill a quiet home for someone who is entering their twilight years, and provide a great deal of life and movement. Birds don’t require much space at all and they can be trained not only to speak, but also to whistle, and even climb on their owner’s finger or hand. Believe it or not, birds can be fairly affectionate and they can enjoy gentle scratches just under their head feathers.


Pet therapy([x]) for depression lends itself well to fish! Fish are mostly low-maintenance, making them ideal for seniors. Just the act of watching them swim around is highly relaxing as well as entertaining. All you really need is a small aquarium that can pump out waste and keep the pH levels and water temperature stable.
Goldfish, particularly, are hearty and can happily live with other goldfish. But, they will not do well if they are placed in a tank with a Black Moor or Fantail. A Siamese Fighting Fish, or Betta Fish, is also a good choice for senior citizens. A solo male is more than happy to live in a small fishbowl in a warm area. Females are also happy on their own, but can’t be homed in groups of five or more and two males can never be placed together.

So, it does take a little research, but owning fish can be very rewarding.

A Word of Warning

If you are considering getting a pet for your aging loved one, no matter how caring your intentions may be, it is never a great idea to choose a pet for someone else. Talk to your relative and other family members or caregivers and make it something you all do together.


Pet therapy for the elderly can provide a myriad of amazing benefits, along with companionship, entertainment, security, and warmth, for seniors looking for a living creature to bond with and look after. Pet therapy for depression and other ailments that seniors suffer from has been linked to lower blood pressure, less frequent visits to the doctor, and a tendency to line in the now instead of contemplating the future. Seniors tend to look forward to looking after and playing with their pets and they love to talk to them and share their thoughts. Overall, pet therapy is a wonderful alternative for seniors who do love pets and those who do not seem to respond to other types of therapy.