Whether you’re a professional caregiver, a parent of a child with special needs, or an adult family member caring for aging parents, you’re likely always looking for new ways to improve and empower independent living skills and self-care. Animal-assisted therapy has been gaining popularity as a complementary treatment for various populations, including seniors and children on the autism spectrum.
This article highlights some of the therapeutic benefits of pet therapy and how caregivers and family members can use pet therapy in their interactions.
Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors
Pet therapy brings animals and humans together to promote mental, emotional, and physical health benefits. These benefits are particularly valuable for seniors in enhancing their overall well-being and quality of life. How does pet therapy empower self-care? Here are a few ways:
1. Improved Mental Health
Seniors often experience feelings of depression, loneliness, and isolation due to life events such as the loss of a spouse or friends, living alone, or limited social interaction. Pet therapy has been shown to reduce these negative emotions by providing companionship and unconditional love. Additionally, interacting with animals can enhance seniors’ social interaction and communication skills, further promoting mental health.
2. Enhanced Physical Health
Pet therapy can also lead to improved physical health for seniors. Engaging with animals can encourage physical activity and outdoor exploration, which is particularly important for maintaining mobility and physical function. Regular exercise has numerous health benefits for seniors, including reducing the risk of chronic illnesses and boosting overall well-being.
3. Increased Sense of Purpose and Responsibility
Caring for a pet can give seniors a sense of purpose, meaning, and accomplishment. In addition, this responsibility can contribute to a more structured daily routine and promote a sense of self-worth.
4. Pet Therapy Success Stories
Numerous success stories illustrate the power of pet therapy within homecare and healthcare settings. For example, a study conducted in Sweden found that regular visits from therapy dogs significantly improved patients’ well-being, social engagement, and quality of life.
Benefits of Therapy Dogs for Children on the Autism Spectrum
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often face challenges related to social skills, emotional regulation, and daily living skills. Pet therapy using specially trained therapy dogs can play a crucial role in addressing these challenges and promoting positive outcomes. How do therapy dogs empower self-care? Here are a few ways:
1. Improved Social Skills
Interacting with therapy dogs can help children with ASD develop better social skills, such as making eye contact, engaging in conversation, and interacting. This improvement is because animals provide a non-threatening and non-judgmental presence that encourages socialization.
2. Enhanced Emotional Regulation
Therapy dogs can also support children with ASD in managing their emotions. The presence of a dog can reduce anxiety and stress, providing a sense of security and comfort. This factor can be particularly beneficial during change or transition, which can be challenging for individuals with ASD.
3. Increased Independence and Life Skills
Caring for a therapy dog can teach children with ASD valuable life skills and promote independence. Responsibilities such as feeding, grooming, and exercising the dog can encourage personal responsibility and improve daily routines.
4. Therapy Dog Success Stories
One example of the benefits of therapy dogs for children with ASD comes from a study conducted at the University of Missouri. The researchers found that some children with ASD who participated in a therapy dog program showed improvements in social skills, communication, and emotional regulation.
Safe Ways to Include Pet Therapy or Therapy Dogs
To include pet therapy or therapy dogs in your interactions with seniors or children, it’s essential to consider the following approaches:
1. Select Appropriate Animals for Therapy
It’s vital to select therapy animals that have a calm temperament and have undergone training.
2. Check for allergies and asthma
Be sure to check for underlying health concerns such as allergies and asthma, as these can worsen during animal contact.
3. Maintain good hygiene
Always wash hands with soap and warm water after petting animals to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria. Additionally, ensure that pets are appropriately groomed to minimize fur shedding.
4. Respect fears and comfort levels:
Respect the person’s comfort levels with animals. If a dog, cat, or rabbit causes fear or uncertainty, consider interactions with caged birds, turtles, or a fish tank. The goal is to create a caring bond between the person and the living creature.
5. Always consider animal welfare:
Ensuring the well-being of therapy animals is a top priority.
Explore the benefits of pet therapy
Pet therapy for seniors and children on the autism spectrum may be a worthy therapeutic practice to consider. Rules for therapy animals and emotional support animals vary across the United States, but an online search of your state’s Department of Aging or Department of Human Services can help to point you in the right direction. Additionally, pet stores, veterinary clinics, and animal shelters in your area may be able to direct you to trusted local sources for pet therapy.