Pet therapy, often known as animal-assisted therapy involves the use of trained animals in therapeutic settings to provide emotional support, companionship and engagement for individuals.
Image above: Therapy pony, Kevin, visiting residents at Queen Elizabeth Park Care Home in Guildford
In care settings for older individuals, this form of therapy is gaining popularity due to its numerous well-documented benefits, which we shall explore in this article.
6 Benefits of Pet Therapy in Care Homes
1. Reduces stress
Petting or cuddling animals has been shown to lower stress levels. Care home residents often face various forms of stress, such as adjusting to a new environment, dealing with health issues, or coping with the loss of independence. Pet therapy can provide a calming effect and help residents manage stress and anxiety.
Pet therapy can help to decrease cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress, and elevated cortisol levels are often associated with increased stress. Interacting with animals during pet therapy sessions has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the body, leading to decreased stress.
Furthermore, pet therapy can provide a welcome distraction from residents' stressors or worries. Spending time with animals can shift focus away from negative thoughts, and provide care home residents with an enjoyable and engaging activity, which can help reduce anxiety and promote a more positive state of mind.
Image: Athena Care Group resident spending time outdoors with a therapy pony
2. Improves mood
Interacting with animals, such as petting, playing, or cuddling, can trigger the release of "feel-good" hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins, which are associated with positive emotions and can help improve mood. These hormones have a calming and uplifting effect on the brain and can contribute to a more positive mood and emotional state.
Pet therapy can serve as a pleasant distraction from negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, or sadness. Spending time with animals can provide a welcome break from worries or negative thoughts, allowing care home residents to focus on positive interactions with the animals, which can help improve mood and overall emotional well-being.
In some cases, care home residents may be involved in caring for or assisting with the animals during pet therapy sessions, which can provide them with a sense of purpose and responsibility. Having a role in the care and well-being of the animals can boost self-esteem, provide a sense of accomplishment, and contribute to an improved mood.
Image: Rowan Lodge, Forest Care resident cuddling a therapy pup
3. Lowers blood pressure & heart rate
Pet therapy has been shown to potentially lower blood pressure in humans. Interacting with animals, such as petting or cuddling them, has been found to have a calming effect on the human body, which can help reduce stress and anxiety, and subsequently lower blood pressure.
Studies have shown that petting a dog or cat can lead to a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones, and an increase in the relaxation response. This can be especially beneficial for individuals with hypertension (high blood pressure), as it has been suggested that pet therapy may help in managing blood pressure levels.
The exact way that pet therapy lowers blood pressure is not fully understood, but it is believed to be related to the release of endorphins (feel-good hormones) when interacting with animals, as well as the social and emotional support that pets provide. Lowering blood pressure can have a positive impact on overall cardiovascular health and may contribute to better health outcomes in individuals with hypertension.
Image: Resident at Woodland Grove, Oakland Care in Loughton enjoying the alpaca pet therapy visit.
4. Reduces feelings of loneliness
Pet therapy has the potential to reduce loneliness for care home residents. Interacting with animals during pet therapy sessions can provide companionship, social interaction, and emotional support, which can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially in older adults who may be living in care homes or experiencing social isolation.
Pets, whether they are dogs, cats, or other animals, can offer unconditional love, companionship, and a non-judgmental presence that can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and provide emotional comfort. Pet therapy sessions can create opportunities for care home residents to form bonds with animals, engage in positive interactions, and experience the joy and pleasure of being in the presence of animals.
In addition to the emotional connection that pets can provide, pet therapy sessions can also facilitate social interaction among care home residents. Group pet therapy sessions can encourage residents to interact with each other, share stories and memories related to animals, and engage in meaningful conversations and activities, which can help combat social isolation and foster a sense of community and connection.
Image: Residents at Home of Compassion in Kingston enjoyed an unforgettable day with unforgettable visitors, including meerkats, bats, giant insects, tropical birds and this colourful chap!
5. Brings back happy memories
Pet therapy has the potential to bring back happy memories for individuals, especially those with dementia or cognitive impairments. Pets can serve as a source of nostalgic reminiscence, as they may remind residents of pets they have had in the past or trigger memories of positive experiences related to animals.
For individuals with dementia, who may struggle with memory loss and cognitive decline, interacting with animals during pet therapy sessions can evoke positive memories and emotions from their past. It may trigger memories of pets they had in their earlier years or remind them of the joy and companionship that pets can provide. This can be emotionally meaningful and contribute to improved well-being for individuals with dementia.
Pet therapy sessions can also facilitate reminiscence therapy, which is a therapeutic approach that involves recalling and discussing past experiences, often with the aid of prompts such as photographs, objects, or in this case, animals. Reminiscence therapy has been shown to improve mood, self-esteem, and social interaction in individuals with dementia, and pet therapy can be an effective way to facilitate reminiscence and stimulate memories associated with pets.
Image: Henley House, Greensleeves Care's residents enjoying a visit from therapy ponies!
6. Improved physical health
Pet therapy can have physical health benefits for care home residents. Interactions with pets can encourage physical activity, such as walking a dog, playing fetch, or engaging in other gentle physical movements, which can help improve mobility, balance, and overall physical fitness.
Pet therapy has been shown to potentially help with pain management in some cases. The presence of animals and the positive emotional and social interactions they provide can help distract from pain or discomfort, reduce anxiety and stress related to pain, and potentially even reduce the need for pain medication.
Interacting with animals during pet therapy can provide sensory stimulation for care home residents. Activities such as petting, brushing, or playing with animals can stimulate the senses of touch, sight, and hearing, which can help improve sensory awareness and cognitive functioning.
Image: Residents at Torkington House, Greensleeves Care receiving a visit from neighbours, Lucy the pig and Dorothy, her owner.
Care Home Pet Therapy Stories
Berwick Grange, MHA in Harrogate
Berwick Grange Care Home had a surprise visit from an alpaca on Easter Monday! Residents and staff were very surprised and there were smiles all around.
Comments from residents included, "I used to own a dog you know and now you are reminding them to me. Thank you" and "I used to work on a farm and animals are my favourite. Thank you".
Jaydee, Activities Coordinator at Berwick Grange said "Bringing animals into our home made the staff and residents feel happy and put smiles on their faces".
Westcombe Park, Bupa in Blackheath
Recently, Westcombe Park enjoyed a visit from an owl as part of an ongoing series of animal therapy sessions to help boost their well-being. Activity Coordinators, Marion and Kat, and Jambs Owls arranged the therapy session, allowing residents to hold the owls and enjoy an informative talk to learn more about the fascinating birds. No one missed out on saying hello to the owls as they visited residents who could not leave their bedrooms.
David Wigginton, aged 79 and a resident at Westcombe Park, commented: “I had a wonderful afternoon, it was my first time holding an owl. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were a lot more friendly than I thought they would be! I cannot wait to see what animals join us next time.”
Abbie Kehinde, Home Manager at Westcombe Park, commented: “We had a wonderful afternoon with Jambs Owls. Animal therapy is known to reduce stress levels, and this was evident by the reactions on our residents' faces. They were even kind enough to take the birds to residents’ rooms who were unable to come downstairs. It truly was a fabulous afternoon, and we hope to see them again soon. It was my first time getting up close to an owl too. What an amazing experience.”
Abbie added “The most memorable part of the day was watching a particular resident, who is nearing the end of her life. Her eyes lit up as she stroked the owls; it was so heart-warming to see her family cherishing the moment, taking pictures and shedding tears of joy as they encountered the smile on her face.”
The Lawns, Bupa in Chelmsford
The Lawns Care Home in Chelmsford had a surprise animal therapy visit from two ponies named Romeo and Charlie. The session was organised by the Activities Coordinator at The Lawns, Chloe Holley and Pixie and Pickles Adventures based in Hertfordshire.
One resident, Dennis Hudson, aged 98, commented: “I had a wonderful afternoon with Romeo and Charlie, it was very interesting to learn all about them. I found them very calming, and it was lovely to stroke them.”.
Another resident, Slyvia Turp, aged 95, added: “The ponies were beautiful, they came to visit me in my room which was very special. They brought back many memories of when I use to ride horses at an equestrian club, I do hope they come again soon!”.
Christine Jennings, Home Manager at The Lawns, said: “It was a lovely afternoon with Pixie and Pickles Adventure. They have visited us before and always bring a smile to our residents’ faces. Our residents who were visited in their rooms were over the moon to have seen the beautiful ponies. Animal therapy sessions are well-known for reducing stress and bringing a sense of calm to older generations, which was clear to see on our residents’ faces. We are looking forward to welcoming them back for more sessions very soon.”
Hutton Village, Bupa in Brentwood
Hutton Village Care Home received a visit from adorable Lily the Lamb as part of their ongoing animal therapy sessions, organised to boost residents' well-being.
The animal therapy session was organised by Activity Coordinator, Angie Lillywhite and Kelly from Performing Pets, a family-run company with over 20 years of experience with arranging animal visits. During the session, residents were provided with the opportunity to hold and feed Lily the Lamb in the lounge. They enjoyed asking Kelly questions about how to look after the lambs.
One resident Pamela Sanderson, aged 95 commented: “It was amazing to pet the fluffy little lamb, I hope she comes to visit us again soon – it really marked the beginning of Spring for me.”
Another resident, Gwen Andrews, aged 97, commented: “It was wonderful to meet Lily the lamb. She was absolutely lovely, I have never held a lamb before but she was so warm, and cuddly that I didn’t want to let her go!”
Angie, at Hutton Village Bupa Care Home, commented: “We had a wonderful afternoon with Performing Pets, the residents loved every minute - especially feeding the little lamb. Animal therapy sessions are well known to reduce stress levels, and this was evident by the warm welcome the residents gave to Lily. We hope to see Kelly and Lily again very soon.”
Queen Elizabeth Park Care Home in Guildford
Kevin the miniature pony brought memories galloping back for Queen Elizabeth Park's residents!
Residents enjoyed making a fuss of Kevin and reminiscing on their own experiences of owning ponies and horses in their younger days. Kevin was accompanied by a handler from Boonies Pet Therapy in Woking and was able to visit residents in their own bedrooms at Queen Elizabeth Park.
Patricia, 80, who used to live in Cobham, said: “When I was a child I had my own pony which my dad bought for my 12th birthday. I think her name was Poppy. My dad was a butcher and one of his customers offered him one of his ponies for me. The visit brought back some lovely memories of her. It made me very happy – he was very good and didn’t make any mess!”
John, 78 who is blind, used to run stables and had up to 30 horses in his field at one time. He was thrilled at the opportunity to stroke the pony and interact with him. “It was really nice having him in, I always think about my horses – I always had them and I always loved them. My wife Janet was a show jumper and she competed all over the place – it was all I lived for. The visit was very nostalgic.”
Jackie Avenell, one of Queen Elizabeth Park’s Lifestyle Coordinators who has been at the home for 18 years and organised the visit, said: “Kevin’s visit brought back many wonderful memories for our residents, who thoroughly enjoyed the day. These experiences are both stimulating and fun and the residents enjoyed reminiscing about their lives and what they did when they were younger. The team takes the time to get to know all our residents and we knew that Kevin’s visit would appeal to them.”
Stanton Court, Country Court Care in Bristol
In March, all of Country Court Care's homes had the theme of pet therapy; they recognise that many of their residents are animal-lovers and that many have had pets in the past or worked with them in their younger days.
Residents at Stanton Court Care Home had a very special visit from Fugly the Lamb. They were given the opportunity to feed and pet Fugly which proved therapeutic for residents.
Wellbeing Coordinator, Lydia Evans said, "All residents were left smiling from ear to ear from the special visit. We all had such a lovely time having hugs and even feeding him".
Cubbington Mill, Barchester Healthcare in Leamington Spa
Cubbington Mill Care Home based in Leamington Spa celebrated the birth of baby chicks at their care home recently. There was lots of 'egg'citement as 7 beautiful fluffy chicks hatched and residents have been busy petting and feeding the chicks.
Laura Russell, General Manager at Cubbington Mill said, “It was an eggs-cellent day when the eggs finally hatched! Residents at Cubbington Mill, as well as our team, were all very excited about the newborns, we’ve named the chicks George, Charlotte and Louis after the royal princes and princesses. For anyone who would like to come for a visit to our chicken coop and have a tour of our home, our doors are always open.”
Benson House, Caring Homes in Wallingford
Oddbodd (known to residents as Oddie) has been visiting Benson House every week for the past few months. The residents have been fascinated by his story. Oddie was born in a French rescue shelter, where Caroline, Wellbeing Coordinator found him at 12 weeks old. His ears were so long that he'd trip over them, Caroline simply couldn't resist!
When Oddie was 4 years old, he was stolen from Caroline by a French huntsman and was trained to hunt deer. Miraculously, Caroline managed to get him back 18 months later when a vet called her to say that her dog had been found roaming on the streets.
Caroline brought Oddie back to the UK with her when I moved back a few years ago. She says "Oddie is such a patient dog, he loves being made a fuss of and doesn't have a mean bone in his body. Oddie is now 13 and has recently been diagnosed with Cushing's Disease. We may only have a short time left with him but this is a dog that just keeps giving so much love. He gets so excited when I tell him he's coming to work with me."
Residents have commented "He has such soft ears!", "Oh! He reminds me of when I had a dog.", "You will bring him again, won't you?", "I used to love walking my dog".
Torkington House, Greensleeves Care in Acton
Torkington House has enjoyed some recent visits from various animals including a pig called Lucy who lives next door to them. Lucy's owner sometimes comes to Torkington House's garden with her to visit the residents.
Residents have also received a visit from a dog belonging to a resident's family member who comes to visit from time to time, much to the delight of the residents!
Recently, residents & staff were given some embryo eggs, provided 2-3 days from hatching from a local farm. The living eggs were put in an incubator specially designed for care home hatching and voila, after a long anticipated wait, the baby ducklings were hatching out of their shells.
Harleston House, Greensleeves Care in Lowescroft
At Harleston House, we have Milo and Alvin, our guinea pigs, and Harry the cat. Harry is not very sociable however he comes along to lunch club as some of the residents feed him secretly under the table!
Milo and Alvin come out most days where the residents groom, feed and pet them. Also, once a week they do a tour of the home visiting residents in rooms.
Gareth Harding, Activities Co-Ordinator says, "I have witnessed many connections between many residents and their pets and can see that there is real love there. In a care setting it is lovely to have animals visit the home but having pets can bring joy and entertainment every day. The residents get to nurture the pets and provide their care daily which helps maintain the resident’s well-being at the same time. I get lots of joy in watching the residents with their pets and seeing how great pets can be in the home”.
Harleston House resident, Lyn says, “It brightens up my day when they visit me in my room, they are lovely to hold”. Whilst Jenny commented, “I love to see them, especially when they fight over the same piece of food, I look after them most days and enjoy doing it”.
Ambient Support truly understands the benefits of pet therapy for the people they support and see first-hand the joy brought by having a pet visit or living in a home. The Ambient Way focuses on a person-centred approach to care, and since animals are such a huge part of day-to-day life for many, they never want the people they support to feel as though they can no longer have this experience when using Ambient's services.
For people in Ambient Support's learning disabilities and mental health services, caring for a pet increases their confidence and sense of independence. Darren, 50, from a Learning Disability service in Staffordshire loves caring for his guinea pigs and ferrets. His team leader Melissa says: "I love how varied my job role is... Saturday is ferret washing day! Darren loves tending to his pets. We believe that pets make a house a home.".
Folkestone Care Centre, Opus Care in Folkestone
Folkestone Care Centre's residents simply love their regular visits from Rolo the dog who visits every week with his owner, Ann. He has a wonderful temperament as he loves attention but is calm and 'smiles' a lot!
One resident commented, "It brings back so many happy memories when I had a dog with me walking along many wood pathways and sandy beaches.". Meanwhile, Resident Norma quoted that she enjoys visits from Rolo and seeing Rolo benefits her with having interaction with dogs as they are her favourite animal. She also enjoys the company of Anne, the Pet therapy dog owner.
Resident, Paddy, completely adores Rolo and in her own words, would kidnap him and put him in her room for cuddles all day! Fellow residents added, "Rolo just brings joy and comfort each week and I give him a sneaky biscuit when no one is looking!".
The staff at Opus Care say that it's lovely to see so many smiles from everyone Rolo engages with. He brings so much joy, whether it's a cuddle, stroke or cheeky kiss. Staff can see the benefits with their own eyes; residents look forward to the visits, reminisce about their own pets and engage with family about the lovely experience they have shared.
Oak Lodge, Forest Care in Basingstoke
Oak Lodge's residents recently enjoyed a visit from some alpacas! Volunteer at Oak Lodge, Karem, said, “The benefits for our residents having pets/animals visiting the care home are numerous. Having physical contact with the animals gives them immense pleasure, they enjoy petting, feeding and sometimes cuddling them.
They continued, "It allows them to remember fondly where they once had pets themselves and how therapeutic it is. One resident explained it helped her to forget difficulties, so almost a little bit of an escape. On seeing the Alpacas, it’s wonderful to see the surprise and enjoyment on their faces when they went into the lounge, a place where you don’t often see such big, lovely animals.”.
Valerie, a resident at Oak Lodge said, “Reminds me of pets I’ve had and takes my mind off things for a little while. Gives me something else to think about. Petting and feeding the animals feel great and provide a great sensory advantage.”.
Wellington Vale, Cinnamon Care, in Waterlooville
Wellington Vale is fortunate enough to have 4 pet therapy dogs that visit 3/4 times a week, much to the residents' delight!
Resident Betty said “I really look forward to Duke’s visits, he really does put a smile on my face! He always leans against my legs as if he is cuddling me and I thank him for making my day by giving him a treat!”
Martin, Duke’s owner said “ Duke gets so excited when we arrive at Wellington Vale and knows exactly where he is going around the home. At the end of our visits he makes his way to the coffee shop for his own cup of tea!!”
Duke has also just starred at the Kings Theatre, Southsea in La Boheme opera after charming his way through the auditions.
Martin is Duke’s owner and will often volunteer at Wellington Vale's public events, with Duke of course!
Pet Therapy Companies
Pets as Therapy - Pets as Therapy is a national charity founded by Lesley Scott-Ordish with a vision to make sure that everyone in the UK has access to the companionship of a friendly pet. The charity's dedicated volunteers visit hospitals, care facilities, schools, hospices, prisons and other establishments in the community with their temperament-assessed pets.
Register for a visit from PAT via their online form.
Therapy Dogs Nationwide - Therapy Dogs Nationwide is completely run by volunteers and their temperament-tested therapy dogs. Volunteers visit all kinds of establishments in the community including care homes, hospitals, special needs schools, hospices and prisons.
Register for a visit from Therapy Dogs Nationwide via their online form.
Wag & Company - Wag & Company is a charity that operates in the North East of England and is the only visiting dog charity where volunteers with temperament-tested dogs visit people in their own homes in the UK as well as in care homes and medical establishments.
Register for a visit from Wag & Company via their online form.
Animal Club - Animal Club is a mobile animal handling and educational company that pay visits to care homes, school and other establishments in the community. Their therapy animal include rabbits, bearded dragons, vinegaroons, chinchillas, geckos, rats, snakes, tarantulas, snails and stick insects!
Register for a visit from Animal Club via their online form.
Canine Concern - Canine Concern is a charity that provides care dogs to the community. This is made possible by their trained volunteers who take their temperament-tested care dogs to visit a variety of establishments including care homes, hospices, hospitals, schools and prisons.
Register for a visit from Canine Concern via their online form.