By Sophie Okolo

Did you know that 70 percent of Americans own pets? This means you most likely know a bunch of people who have pets.

What’s surprising is that the USA has the most pets, followed by China, Russia, and Japan.

Obviously, we love our pets. They bring us joy and comfort, are loyal, and are good for our health. So why aren’t pets a big part of senior living communities? Not just a few communities but across the board?

Pets Increase Social Connection in Senior Living.

Think about it. Since we are attached and dependent on our furry friends, communities should make an effort to have pets as a part of their culture and part of their residents’ lives.

After all, companion animals are known to reduce feelings of loneliness in older adults. Loneliness is a big issue nowadays, and researchers have called it an epidemic. It is also an issue that is widespread in senior living, so we need to design communities in ways that increase social connection and harmony. I learned these concepts during my fellowship with Columbia University Age Boom Academy last year.

Having residents interact with pets can help improve their mental and emotional well-being, as pets give a sense of responsibility. In the US, pet therapies, also called animal-assisted therapies, are very common and popular in nursing homes. Research has shown that stroking and talking to a pet lowers one’s blood pressure and heart rate, increasing life expectancy. It has also been researched that older pet owners walk significantly farther when they walk with a dog.

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy is a formal, documented process with scheduled sessions and a treatment goal. It commonly uses dogs but is not restricted to them; therapists can use fish, rabbits, cats, horses, and even dolphins!

Although the goal is to make having pets the norm in senior living communities, having regular pet therapy sessions across communities is also a good start. But animal-assisted therapy should not be confused with having service animals and animal-assisted activities. Those are more spontaneous and do not necessarily have a treatment goal. Nevertheless, all can help residents increase social behaviors, interact with people, and decrease loneliness.

Lessons From Across the Pond

If having permanent animals is a huge investment, how about having temporary animal companionship OR even a fake animal? Japan is already leading the way, because they also use cuddly toys in their senior living communities. Sometimes, these cuddly toys have a built-in voice box/message to record greetings and best wishes from families. While nothing beats the real thing, it’s great to see there are other ways having pets or pet therapy can be done.

In Romania, pet therapies are just as common, but the dogs used for pet therapy are, in fact, street dogs. Stray dogs have always been a problem in Bucharest, Romania’s capital. But in 2013, a law was passed to euthanize street dogs unless they have a home. It was after a street dog killed a 4-year-old boy. In response to the law, the organization Vier Pfoten had a vision to save the dogs and give back to the community. They started a project that trains street dogs to be used for pet therapy in nursing homes. What a great idea! Perhaps that can happen in the USA.

At the Heart of It All

We know that pets are a wonderful addition to any home and an even bigger addition to residents. They can be a good distraction when residents feel overwhelmed or have a bad day. It’s time to see pet therapy in a new way.