Benefits of Companion Animals for Older Adults - 24|7 Nursing Care

Benefits of Companion Animals for Older Adults

Throughout the years, older adults in the United States have become more and more isolated. Social isolation, which leads to feelings of loneliness, is the cause of many serious health risks. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity”. Additionally, social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50%, heart disease by 29%, and stroke by 32%. Loneliness due to social isolation is also associated with higher risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide. The list goes on, but what can we do about this growing epidemic? 

Companion Animals

The benefits of companion animals for older adults are numerous. What is particularly striking is how creating a bond with an animal can reduce a person’s susceptibility to diseases associated with old age, as well as lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. 

“An extensive number of studies in a wide range of journals and disciplines support that interactions with pets contribute to good health and quality of life and healing from serious illnesses and conditions,” says Dr. Maria Iliopoulou, an alumna of the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine

History of Pet Therapy

A little known fact is that “pet therapy” began in ancient Greece (600 BC). According to, they were the first to employ companion animals (specifically horses) to treat the severely ill. Animal-assisted therapy was not seen again until the 1600s when once again physicians turned to horses to improve the health of their patients. Florence Nightingale also noted the many benefits of small companion animals on patient health, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that research into animal therapy began in earnest. 

Now, many hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors utilize companion animals to help their patients and clients. In fact, many hospitals have licensed therapy dogs, accompanied by volunteers, that will visit patients in their rooms. These dogs go through rigorous training to ensure they will be a help and not a hindrance in a hospital setting. In a recent study, 99% of nursing homes in Ohio reported that animal companions were allowed in their facilities, citing that the benefits outweighed the risk. 

Choosing Between a Therapy Dog, Service Dog, or Companion Animal 

When choosing a companion animal for an older adult it is important to consider if they have any allergies, physical limitations, or mental challenges. 

Many licensed emotional support or therapy animals will be trained to require as little care from their owners as possible, and “service dogs” may even help the individual in their day-to-day activities. These animals, which are almost exclusively dogs, must meet certain criteria and are assessed for temperament, shedding, sociability, and adaptability. 

There are two ways to bring a therapy dog or service dog into your home. First, you may adopt, train, and get a dog certified on your own, or contact a local therapy dog provider in your area. 

The role of a therapy dog is to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers. These are typically the dogs that are brought into hospitals and nursing homes because of their stable temperaments and laid-back personalities. 

Comparatively, service animals are trained to assist their handler in activities that eases their disability. For instance, a dog trained to alert their handler with a visual impairment to danger while crossing the street is an example of a service dog. Service dogs empower a person with disabilities to live more independently. These individuals are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so that they may be accompanied by their service animals in such places as restaurants and stores. Therapy dogs do not experience the same level of protection. 

Finding the Right Fit companion animal

Whether choosing a therapy, service, or companion animal, all three will serve to diminish isolation and loneliness while improving the health of their human partner. Yet, there are a few more things to consider before choosing an animal companion. For instance, is the individual comfortable living with pet hair, a little box, or any wear and tear on the home? Consider where the pet will live. Whether renting a home, or living in a nursing home, permission from the property owner will most likely be required. The age of an animal also plays a role, as younger pets like puppies or kittens require much more work than their more mature counterparts. Beyond cats and dogs, some notable companion animals include ferrets, rabbits, birds, and pot-bellied pigs. It is important to take into account the size and general temperament of each animal. 

Regardless of which animal companion you choose, pet ownership diminishes feelings of loneliness, improves cardiovascular health and adaptive stress, and is an indicator of long-term survival in patients who have experienced a heart attack. Seen in this light, a loving furry friend may make all the difference to an older adult.