What is pet therapy? Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and an animal. The purpose of this form of therapy is to help the patient cope or recover from a health problem or mental disorder and provide comfort to them.

Over the years, pet therapy has become more and more popular, especially in nursing homes where the elderly residents can interact with them. However, there are also prevalent risks.

In a 2018 study done by researchers from The Ohio State University, it was found that nursing homes in Ohio rarely had any policies or protocols set in place to protect the residents and animals. The researchers surveyed 95 administrators from nursing homes across Ohio to find out what kinds of pets were allowed, the extent of their visitation, whether the pets were owned by the staff or the home itself and whether there were policies set in place to counteract the risks involved with allowing animals into nursing homes.

It was found that 99 percent of these homes allowed visiting or resident animals; this included pets such as dogs, cats, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, miniature horses, rodents such as hamsters and rats, and farm animals such as goats and pigs.

Although 93 percent of these facilities claimed to have an animal policy, most of these policies had loopholes when it came to health and safety concerns, such as infections or diseases that therapy animals may carry. Most of the policies allocated caregivers for the animals and had vaccination requirements, but the policies also excluded animals that recently had diarrhoea, vomiting, or appeared to be unwell.

You can read the full study here.

Though one thing can be said for sure: pets do bring joy to these patients. They are a form of companionship and something for the residents at nursing homes to look forward to. Here are some of the benefits and risks of therapy animals in nursing homes:

1. Improves Self-Esteem
Residents at nursing homes can often feel like they no longer have control over their lives, because they are unwell and unfit to perform the duties they could when they were younger and healthier and have to depend on caregivers for daily tasks. Introducing pets can add purpose in their lives and give them an emotional boost.

2. Shifts Focus From Health 
Therapy animals help to divert the attention of nursing home residents from their illnesses, depression, loneliness or even self-esteem and brings the focus to their furry companions. This makes the resident happier.

3. Improves Mental Functioning
Pets are an excellent form of mental stimulation. Through interacting with them, it stimulates the mind of the resident, stimulating memory and focus as they respond to the pet’s needs and care for them. Pet therapy has also been proven to delay dementia.

4. Reduces Loneliness
One of the major causes of depression in the elderly--and also in nursing home residents--is loneliness. Being by themselves in nursing homes can make these residents feel as if they have been abandoned by their families. With therapy animals, they don’t feel as lonely as these pets offer them companionship, even if for a short time.

1.Transmission Of Zoonotic Diseases
Pets can transmit several diseases to humans without even realising. This risk is extremely high when health, grooming and handwashing protocols are not meticulously followed. This is dangerous in nursing homes where residents are already in poor health.

2. Risk From Raw Diets Or Treats
Raw meat is at high risk of being contaminated with bacteria such as campylobacter, salmonella, and cryptosporidium. These pathogens pose detrimental health risks to both pet and human--especially those who have compromised immune systems, making them weaker to bacterial infections from these pets.

3. Some Pets Carry Dangerous Bacteria
Since there are no guidelines for therapy animals, reptiles and amphibians are not discriminated to be therapy pets. However, reptiles often carry and shed salmonella which can cause diarrhoea, dehydration, and infections in the intestines. These are extremely harmful to the elderly who are already immunocompromised.

Overall, the positives of therapy animals seem to outweigh the negatives. Therapy animals offer the elderly at nursing homes some comfort and therefore, play a vital role in their wellbeing. When protocols are set and health and safety guidelines are followed, it can reduce the risks posed by exposing these patients to animals.

Human-animal interaction and relationships can be a good experience but it has to be done properly and in a way where it does not become negative so that every interaction is safe and enjoyable.