Benefits of pet therapy in care homes

Anyone who owns a dog or cat will not be surprised that pets are great for therapy. Introducing them into a care home setting can therefore be very beneficial, offering comfort and companionship without the expectation that comes with many human relationships.

What is pet therapy?

Pet therapy allows animals to perform a companionship role to support emotional, social or cognitive needs. It’s suitable for people of all ages, including the elderly, and has been found to have many mental health benefits.

Importance of pet therapy in care homes

Setting up a pet therapy programme represents a positive step in helping to stimulate the minds of elderly residents. Each person will interact differently with pets in residential care homes, with some seeking comfort and others being inspired to get more active.

Animal therapy goes further than just cats or dogs visiting care homes, with farmyard or other unusual species, such as alpacas or owls, also providing positive experiences.

Benefits of pet therapy for the elderly in care homes

The benefits of pet therapy are wide-reaching and the healing power of animals has been reported both anecdotally and through formalised studies. Pet therapy activities can encourage residents to be more active, address cognitive issues and bring joy to individuals and groups.

Improves and increases emotional wellbeing

Pet therapy and mental health are very closely linked, with the act of stroking an animal or being in its presence releasing happy hormones like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. Even residents with dementia can be soothed when introduced to pets in care homes.

Brings back fond memories

Interacting with pet therapy animals can unlock hidden memories of cats, dogs and other creatures that may have been part of the lives of elderly residents in the past. Even when these former encounters can’t be put into words, their joy can often be seen in participants’ faces.

Boosts activity levels

Getting up to retrieve a ball for a dog or to groom its coat is an effective way of using animals in care homes to improve activity levels. Taking responsibility for the wellbeing of another creature is a great motivator to move around in those who’ve become increasingly sedentary.

Reduces stress levels

Spending time with animals in care homes reduces stress in a number of ways. Visiting pets for the elderly provide companionship and distract residents from feeling agitated or isolated. Levels of cortisol are decreased and instead, those happy hormones are released.

Combats loneliness

The unconditional love that comes from pets is powerful in the fight against loneliness. Offering affection to those who are isolated by age-related conditions, animals can reach people with dementia and Alzheimer’s or even just a reclusive nature without the need for much in return.

Increases social interaction

Pet therapy in care homes can increase social interaction not just with the animals but also between other residents. It gives them something to look forward to, comment on and discuss together in a way that often helps to break down barriers.

Common animals used for pet therapy in care homes

A comprehensive pet therapy programme should include a variety of creatures. Often it begins with common domesticated species like dogs and cats that have been specifically chosen for the role due to their empathetic natures.


Dogs in care homes can provide a number of roles depending on the abilities of residents. While some will be content to simply pat or stroke a pet therapy dog, others could benefit from being responsible for taking it for a walk or bathing a visiting pooch.


Cats can make good pets in residential care homes, as they require less looking after than dogs. Despite their independence, they can provide warmth, comfort and companionship, while coming and going as they please.


The health benefits of human-animal interactions can be seen in pet therapy using creatures that aren’t cuddly. Birds like budgies, canaries and cockatiels can be trained easily and their eye-catching plumage offers plenty to talk about. Owls have even been used as visiting pets for the elderly, sparking delight among residents.

Robopets in care homes

During times when it’s not possible to bring pets into residential care homes, like during the coronavirus pandemic, robopets have been found to elicit similar responses from residents as real animals. They’re especially effective for people with dementia, who can find them a comfort.

Activities to get residents connected to animals

Pet therapy in care homes can be approached in various ways, ranging from adopting an animal to live on site to arranging visits or even interacting with species through online encounters.

Animal visits

Dedicated organisations that bring animals into care homes are one of the most popular ways to approach pet therapy in this type of setting. It provides all the benefits of interaction with animals without the responsibility to care for them full time. Some care homes also welcome visits from beloved family pets to cheer up residents.

Virtual animal encounters

We all know cat videos can make us feel good and it turns out that looking at an animal on a screen can help to reduce anxiety. Virtual pet therapy can be part of a wider programme to introduce animals into care homes or as a standalone exercise when the practicalities don't allow.

Animal-themed discussion groups

Extending the benefits of pet therapy long after a cat or dog visit can be achieved by holding follow-up events. These can include pet therapy activities like discussions about the animals that came to see the residents and what creatures they might like to have visit in the future.

Pet care and responsibility

Residents that are capable of cleaning out a hutch or bird cage, or grooming an animal can get a positive boost from feeling a sense of purpose. A desire to be needed is often seen in care home residents and the rewards of performing simple tasks for animals can fulfil such yearnings.

Fun interactions

The fun that interacting with animals can bring as a way to use pet therapy for depression, loneliness or isolation can be seen in care homes across the country. Volunteers see residents come alive, laughing and chatting to animals in the most natural of ways.

Challenges in the implementation of pet-assisted therapy in care homes

Before any programme can begin, a pets in care homes policy must be established to ensure it’s safe, compliant and beneficial. This is one of the reasons why outside providers are often brought in, as they fully understand the implications of bringing animals into care homes.

Health and safety considerations

A full health and safety review must be considered prior to inviting animals into a care setting. The individual temperament of the pets must be considered, but also issues relating to residents, such as allergies or previous bad experiences with animals that may put them off interacting with cats, dogs or other creatures.

Regulatory compliance

All pet therapy visits must be compliant with Public Health England and NICE guidance to ensure precautions have been taken in the way of infection prevention and public safety. Animals must be kept away from food preparation areas and all residents advised to wash their hands after touching pet therapy cats and dogs.

Staff training and education

In order for animal therapy visits to be a success, staff must be fully on board and educated in the policies and procedures to carry out in all eventualities. This includes any soiling that could occur as a result of having live animals on the premises.

Questions and answers

  • Do care homes allow pets?

    Yes, care homes can welcome animals as long as they’re told in advance, the pet is vetted and the right policies and procedures are followed.

  • Which dog breeds are the best for pet therapy?

    Some breeds of dog make better pet therapy animals than others due to their naturally loving and affectionate natures. Lurchers, Yorkshire terriers and labradoodles are among the best.

  • Does pet therapy have a long history?

    Florence Nightingale is said to have used animals in a therapeutic setting in 1869, but its history goes back before that. The first recorded account of pet therapy was in 1792, when the Quaker York Retreat worked with rabbits and poultry.

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