When most people think of animal therapy, they think of a therapy dog. There’s a good reason for that! After all, dogs are “man’s best friend” and they’re certainly easier to find than some of our other picks for companion animals. (We’ll get to those!) Though the bond between humans and animals is still woefully under-studied, much of the research we do have points to some real benefits of therapy animals working with physically and mentally ill individuals. A UCLA study on dementia patients who participated in therapy with animals, in this instance dogs, saw a decrease in agitated behavior and an increase in social interaction. But dogs aren’t the only animals used for therapy; let’s take a look at some of the most effective therapy animals today, especially for older adults.
Labs and Golden Retrievers make great sighted leads and fantastic family dogs, but lap dogs tend to be the best choices for seniors, for both personal dogs and therapy dogs. It’s hard to sit with a retriever in your lap, especially for those who have grownmore fragile with age. The smaller breeds are not only less of a financial burden (which is important for older adults living on a fixed income), but they’re also easier to pick up and transport, making them ideal dogs for seniors and good choices for traveling therapy animals. Non-profit organizations like Senior Dogs for Seniors adopt and rescue local dogs, and then match those dogs with seniors looking for companionship. This not only helps rescue dogs find a new life, but also fits the needs of older adults best since older dogs don’t require as much exercise as younger ones do!
We don’t hear a lot about therapy cats. Some may argue that cats are too aloof to be great therapy animals, but some older adults aren’t looking for a boisterous, knock-you-over-with-joy type of interaction. Petting any animal can help release feel-good chemicals like serotonin in the brain, and cats’ rhythmic purring and soft fur can help to soothe an individual with dementia in a nursing home or an older adult who may want quiet companionship without needing to speak. As far as pets go, it also helps that cats are generally self-sufficient and easy to transport, ideal for seniors who may not be able to walk a dog each day.
Equine therapy has had incredible success in helping to treat both physical and mental disabilities, and some organizations are expanding to include veteran services to help individuals with PTSD, and programs to help the elderly. The US Department of Veteran’s Affairs has also run equine therapy programs for those with PTSD, and a 2011 editorial noted that each veteran chose personal goals and that “many of those goals are improving verbal and nonverbal communication, decreasing anxiety, handling frustration, building confidence and self-esteem, completing tasks, and becoming more aware of feelings.” While horses are a large financial and physical commitment as pets, their presence in therapy programs has certainly been a benefit for older adults and veterans.
That’s right, monkeys And why not? They’re small, brilliant, highly dexterous, and as capable of affection as dogs, cats, or horses. Capuchin monkeys are available as personal therapy animals to help physically disabled individuals, and so far have achieved positive results, particularly with quadriplegic individuals. Capuchin monkeys have even been featured in TIME magazine as one of the Top Ten therapy animals. Who knows, in the next ten years we may see monkeys becoming particularly helpful for seniors living at home with physical disabilities, who may want minor assistance and animal companionship in addition to the support of a professional caregiver or family member.
Have you or an older loved one had experience with any of these types of animal therapy? Have you ever noticed that a pet managed to calm a loved one when no one else could? Share your stories below!