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home : health : health January 16, 2018

11/28/2017 1:21:00 PM
Health benefits of animal therapy for older adults
Griffin the therapy dog at the Sisters Christmas Parade. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee
+ click to enlarge
Griffin the therapy dog at the Sisters Christmas Parade. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee

By Jodi Schneider McNamee

Anyone who has ever stroked a dog's soft ears or felt the gentle rumble of a cat's purr knows the calming feeling an animal can offer.

Animals offer companionship and unconditional love. They also have the ability to improve health and general well-being, especially in the older adult population.

The most serious problem for older adults is not disease; it's loneliness - especially during the holidays. Elderly people, especially those living in residential care facilities, are at a higher risk for developing depression. For these reasons, more and more often animals are being utilized for therapeutic purposes at senior facilities. Therapy animals are used to promote health and healing for seniors of any age range or health condition, whether they are depressed, chronically ill or have ongoing disabilities.

Seniors suffer from depression, usually as a result of loneliness or isolation, either because friends and family members cannot visit on a regular basis, or they aren't as active as they previously were. Or perhaps a loving spouse has passed away. Contact with therapy animals can bring some withdrawn seniors out of their shells, making them happier and more communicative.

Pet therapy for seniors, also known as animal assisted therapy, is a technique that uses animals to interact with seniors for numerous reasons to help improve their quality of life. Studies show that just 15 minutes spent bonding with an animal promotes hormonal changes within the brain. Stress levels drop as the brain produces serotonin (the "feel-good" hormone), along with prolactin and oxytocin.

Therapy animals and their handlers can make a resident come alive, bringing joy and laughter with every visit.

Dr. Michael McCulloch, a Portland psychiatrist, and Dr. Samuel Corson, of Ohio State University, are two active researchers and experts on why pets excel as therapeutic agents.

According to McCulloch, "Touch is one of our primary needs when we're born and one of our last needs to go." In long-term facilities, residents are often lacking the feeling that they are needed. Pets allow them, even if for a short time, to be nurturers once again.

Pet therapy's benefits on physical health are abundant.

"We know from studies that interacting with pets can have a more direct influence on your health, from lowering your blood pressure and increasing levels of serotonin to helping you get more exercise," said Dr. Patricia McConnel, animal behaviorist and author of "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend."

Studies show that interacting with a dog or other animal releases the anti-stress, calming hormone oxytocin in animals and humans.

Pioneering South African researchers Johannes Odendaal and Roy Meintjes first demonstrated the reciprocal release of endorphins (oxytocin and dopamine) in studies they conducted with humans and dogs in 2003. Petting dogs also results in decreased levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol.

And Swedish researcher Linda Handlin demonstrated that when women interacted with their dogs, the oxytocin-promoting bonding was similar to that produced when mothers breastfed their newborns.

Having an animal in a senior's life can help improve their well-being and give new meaning to their life. Due to the numerous health benefits therapy animals provide, assisted-living facilities usually include pet-therapy in their regular senior-care programs. Being around animals makes people feel better, healthier, and happier.

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