Where humans and traditional medicine sometimes fail, animals often succeed in cutting through the physical and emotional barriers that isolate certain people in our society. This is especially true for residents of nursing homes and those with Alzheimer's and/or dementia. Studies have found that simply having an animal present or visiting a long-term care facility can provide multiple health benefits to residents. Some skilled nursing facility residents have shown increased communication, decreased anxiety, lower heart rates, and a decrease in depression following interactions with animals. Alzheimer's patients who often experience behavior disorders such as agitation and aggression have exhibited fewer episodes of verbal outbursts and anxiety and increased positive socialization when a therapy dog was present.
Who are these special animals, and how does animal assisted therapy (AAT) work? Organizations like Delta Society provide animal therapy services to long-term care facilities for either volunteers or on-staff health care professionals to implement. Dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits and even cats owned either by a volunteer or the organization in question are used to provide these social, motivational and recreational opportunities for seniors. In addition, these animals offer health care professionals a therapeutic treatment tool to incorporate into specific patient treatment plans. Before considering instituting any AAT program, a facility should go through a site assessment to determine what types of AAT programs would be appropriate for a specific patient population.
The cost-effectiveness of an AAT approach can yield real clinical outcomes. The problem is too many health care providers are unaware of the tremendous healing potential of animals and lack the proper information and training to incorporate animals into their care and treatment plans.