“Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” This wise quote comes from the pen of George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, one of the leading English novelists of the 19th century. Her novels are celebrated for their realism and psychological insights. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to own a pet, can testify to this statement. She intuitively understood something about the psyche of humans and animals that science has since proven to be true …
What is animal-assisted activities?
Animal-assisted activities (AAA) are “opportunities for motivational, educational, recreational, and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance quality of life. Animal-assisted activities are delivered in a variety of environments by specially trained professionals, paraprofessionals, and/or volunteers, in association with animals that meet specific criteria” (Pet Partners, 2012). Generally, AAA entails visits by domestic animals – usually cats or dogs – and their handlers in settings such as schools, clinics, hospitals, and residential facilities like aged care facilities.
AAA is sometimes confused with pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy (AAT). AAT involves a more formal, structured set of sessions to assist people in reaching specific treatment goals, whereas AAA is a more casual interaction between an animal and its handler, and one or more people. The purpose of AAA is to provide comfort and recreation.
The benefits of AAA and AAT
1. Improved mental health
Stroking and cuddling an animal prompts the body to release serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. These are the so-called “happy hormones”. They generate a relaxing and stress-reducing response, thereby lowering anxiety, while also easing the symptoms of sadness and depression which are, unfortunately, common problems among older people. People who have experienced animal-assisted interactions have reported feeling less lonely. The presence of an animal can provide comfort and distraction during challenging times, such as during the transition to an aged care facility or after the loss of a loved one. Therapy dogs have been shown to lessen agitation in persons suffering from dementia.
2. Enhanced physical health
While the mental health benefits of animal-assisted interactions are commonly known, many people are surprised to learn that such interactions also hold physical benefits. It can, for instance, speed up the healing process, reduce the effects of some health conditions and reduce the amount of medication some people need to manage medical conditions. Spending time with a therapy dog can improve cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and stress hormone levels. Furthermore, the release of oxytocin boosts the immune system and increases the pain threshold. All of these benefits are very important for older people who often start to experience various physical ailments.
3. Skills improvement
Another benefit of animal-assisted interactions is skill improvement in various types of therapy. For instance, in physical therapy that requires exercise that may be uncomfortable, patients find themselves more motivated to take part in therapy after interacting with a pet. The aforementioned increased pain threshold related to the oxytocin release can also motivate people to persevere in their therapy programs.
Animal-assisted interactions at Nazareth Care
At Nazareth Care, we have embraced the advantages and benefits of animal-assisted interactions and have integrated AAA into some of our Houses. We look forward to expanding this program to all our Houses.