Julie Casey MSW, RSW

Wellness Care Farm

Nourishing Hearts

Starting an Animal Assisted Intervention Program



A Guidebook for Health Care Professionals

Resource Manual





Over the past few years, there has grown a tremendous interest in the therapeutic applications of companion animals for patients with a variety of physical, emotional, and mental limitations. Starting from a small corps of enthusiastic animal and human health specialists who intuitively felt something positive occurred when pets and people came together, the field has now developed its own interdisciplinary research and programmatic applications. Pet-facilitated therapy (PFT) has emerged as a specialized intervention technique as innovative health care professionals seek effective and cost-efficient approaches to resident care. 

Holistic health care professionals recognize that patients’ affective (emotional) needs must be attended to as well as their physiological needs. Consequently, nursing homes, hospitals, retirement communities, and many other institutions are exploring the use of companion animals in a diverse array of therapeutic applications. Juvenile delinquents are taking care of farm animals, children with cerebral palsy are learning to ride horses, autistic children are attempting to communicate with dolphins, and prison inmates are breaking wild horses or gaining vocational skills training undisciplined dogs. More common are what are called pet visitation programs, where residents have the opportunity to see their own pets, or those belonging to trained volunteers or visitors, to take their minds off their aches and pains for a little while. Animal shelters, breed clubs, hospital docents and family members often discover serendipitously that animals can reach through to a resident where human contact often cannot. In many facilities, residential pets – dogs, cats, birds, fish, rabbits – live happily with the residents providing certain levels of care and responsibility. Surprisingly, the staff, administration, and population of a health care facility often find that the animals help enhance the treatment milieu without increasing work loads or creating inter-resident conflicts. Pets can help make a nursing home a home. 

PFT has been shown to provide many benefits to residents. Animals can help socialize a health care facility by stimulating group interaction. Since for so many persons pets are a common experience, often recalling pleasant memories of childhood, animals can help break down barriers that may exist between different groups; thus, they may serve as catalysts to communication among residents, staff and visitors. By being non-judgmental, non-threatening, and emotionally safe, their unconditional affection can help stimulate withdrawn residents and bring them out of their isolation. They may provide opportunities for physical rehabilitation or recreational/occupational therapy. Constructing a bed, kennel or cage might provide purposeful activities, while grooming a pet can be a daily exercise for arthritic hands. Some ambulatory residents might find that walking a do is preferable to wandering aimlessly through the neighborhood.

With proper training and supervision, a pet can be reinforcement to help modify the behaviors of certain residents. Studies have demonstrated that persons’ blood pressure levels are reduced by contemplating a fish tank or petting a dog. Elderly or infirm residents may have lost their eyesight or hearing, but almost all can still respond positively to tactile stimulation. Touch is a powerful sense, and the nuzzling provided by a puppy or kitten can be very beneficial. Some residents may be precluded from traditional nursing home activities due to language barriers or because they are unpopular or physically unattractive; but pets make no such distinctions and wag their talks and cuddle on laps indiscriminately, regardless of a person’s language, impairment or attitude. And research into the emotional, physical and social benefits of animals has only just begun.

While the theoretic basis for PFT is not yet established, and the precise reasons for pets’ therapeutic effects remain unclear, many noteworthy program have been introduced and others are planned. Though PFT has applications in many treatment regimens, the professional is advised that each specialization, plus the group dynamics of each institution, will affect implementation, success or failure. In addition, state laws and local ordinances must be consulted and may have to be amended. In many cases, a full, written policy or protocol will be needed and a successful PFT program may have to be included in a facility’s long-term planning process. In other cases, a more informal program may be implemented, though good supervision and controls are still required.

Written by Phil Arkow