How seniors benefit from pet therapy How seniors benefit from pet therapy

How seniors benefit from pet therapy

Pet therapy, sometimes called animal-assisted therapy, is a way of treating physical and mental health issues through interactions with animals, from domesticated cats and dogs to farm animals. Pet therapy can occur in a range of settings, like retirement communities and rehabilitation centers, and includes the therapeutic benefits experienced by seniors who live with pets of their own.1

Studies have shown that seniors who own pets tend to live longer, have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and experience less anxiety and depression than those who don’t.2

Types of pet therapy

Ownership therapy is when the senior owns and lives with the pet. This can be a good option for seniors who are active and able to properly care for an animal, which may include walking and exercising, as well as transportation to and payment for veterinary care and possibly grooming services.3

Visitation therapy is the most common type of pet therapy, in which animals visit seniors in their homes, senior living communities or assisted living facilities. These therapy animals are specifically trained to interact safely and calmly with people who have a variety of physical challenges. Therapy animals are always accompanied by professional handlers.4

Animal-assisted therapy is the term most often used for an intensive form of pet therapy for seniors who are undergoing rehabilitation treatment. Rehabilitation patients may be paired with highly sensitive animals, like dolphins or horses, as part of their therapy, to promote physical skills and build confidence.5

What are the benefits of pet therapy for older adults?

Research has shown that pet owners are less likely to feel lonely, visit the doctor less often, take less medication, recover from illness faster and cope better with stress.6

Emotional benefits of pet therapy for seniors may include:7

  • Increased self-esteem and confidence
  • Improved social skills
  • Reduced risk of depression
  • Lessened levels of anxiety
  • Reduced feelings of loneliness

Animals may help reduce pain. A study in London in 2009 found that patients with total joint replacement needed 50% less pain medication when their recovery was paired with canine therapy.8

Other physical benefits of pet therapy include:9

  • Increased levels of exercise
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Reduction in depression, stress and anxiety levels

Pet therapy may provide mental health benefits for seniors, especially for those living with dementia or another form of cognitive impairment.10

How does pet therapy work for seniors?

First, discuss the idea of pet therapy with a doctor or therapist, whether considering adopting a pet or enrolling in a pet therapy program.

Then identify a pet therapy program or choose a pet to adopt. If working with a pet therapy program, make sure the handler has a pet therapy certification. To get this certification, the animal must have undergone a temperament assessment, obedience training and a physical exam to ensure they are in good health.11

Establish goals. Involve a doctor or therapist in planning the goals of pet therapy. To improve cardiovascular health? Provide social support? Improve mental health? The doctor, therapist and/or professional therapy pet handler may all be involved in laying out a plan. Make sure to monitor progress toward those goals and check in regularly with medical and therapeutic professionals for help modifying the plan as necessary.12

What about robotic pets for seniors?

Research has found that robotic pets provide many of the same benefits of animal therapy. They can be a good option for seniors who are unable to care for a pet, perhaps due to dementia, Alzheimer’s or mobility challenges. Robotic pets can also benefit those with allergies or those with compromised immune systems and/or using certain medications, making interaction with animals risky.13

Modern robotic pets may include artificial intelligence programming, allowing them to respond to voices and to move their heads or bodies when being touched. They can often open and close their mouths, lift their paws and make purring sounds, and many have fur that can be brushed.14

Are there disadvantages to pet therapy for older adults?

Hospitals and other facilities find that their biggest concerns when bringing animals in for therapy are safety and sanitation. Most such facilities have stringent rules to ensure that the animals are clean, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior.15

When considering adopting and living with a pet, safety and sanitation should be prioritized as well. Does the senior have the ability and resources to keep the pet clean and healthy? Has the pet considered for adoption been evaluated for temperament? It can be a good idea to adopt an adult pet, one with some basic training and without the high-energy needs of a puppy or kitten.

Animal companionship may provide feelings of purpose and engagement for people of all ages, including seniors. Spending time with a pet is a powerful way to combat loneliness and isolation, while reducing stress and promoting overall health and wellness.16

Go365 by Humana® makes wellness fun and easy. We help Humana Medicare members with Go365® on their plan reach health goals as well as take care of their physical and emotional health—allowing members to thrive at any age.

Humana Medicare members with Go365 on their plan can enroll in Go365 at Humana Medicare Advantage members who have Go365 can sign in here.

Go365 is a well-being and rewards program for many Humana Medicare Advantage members. To learn more about Humana Medicare Advantage, call to speak with a licensed Humana sales agent at 1-844-321-5843 (TTY:711), Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. local time or visit

If you need to enroll in Medicare Advantage or change your plan outside of the usual Medicare Annual Election Period, a Special Election Period (SEP) could be the answer. For information on eligibility, visit Humana’s Special Enrollment Period page.


1“Pet Therapy: Animals as healers,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed September 26, 2022, in new window.

2“Pets and Seniors,” American Humane, last accessed September 26,2022, in new window.

3Ryan Llera, Lynn Buzhardt, “Therapy Pets,” VCA Animal Hospitals, last accessed September 26, 2022, in new window.

4Llera, Buzhardt, “Therapy Pets.”

5Llera, Buzhardt, “Therapy Pets.”

6Llera, Buzhardt, “Therapy Pets.”

7“Pet Therapy Statistics in 2022 – Benefits, Facts & More,” Pawsome Advice, last accessed September 1, 2022, in new window.

8“Pet Therapy Statistics in 2022 – Benefits, Facts & More,”

9“8 Health benefits of having a pet,” Animal Health Foundation, last accessed September 26, 2022, in new window.

10Jonathan Rosenfeld, “The Benefits of Pet Therapy in Nursing Homes,” Nursing Home Law News, last accessed September 26, 2022, in new window.

11“Therapy Animals,” American Humane, last accessed September 26, 2022, in new window.

12“Pet Therapy,” Healthline, last accessed September 26, 2022, in new window.

13“Robotic Pets Bring Companionship to Older People,” AARP, last accessed September 26, 2022, in new window.

14“Robotic Pets Bring Companionship to Older People.”

15“Pet Therapy.”

16“Pet Therapy.”

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