Benefits of pets in aged care homes

Monique Butterworth interviews Dr Betty Chan for Seniors Pet Insurance

The rhythmic clickety-clack of four paws with claws making their way down a quiet corridor of an aged care home is heaven to many a resident’s ear.

Sadly, this sound is far too uncommon in Australia. We are a nation of animal lovers, yet just 18% of all aged care homes consider allowing residents to keep a pet, according to the Aged Care Survey Results 2023 from the Companion Animal Network Australia (CANA).

This is despite the same data revealing that 86% of people believe that older adults experience improved mental and physical health when they’re able to interact with pets in aged care facilities.

The decision to move into residential care is rarely an easy one – whether it’s you or a loved one. That decision becomes heartbreakingly harder when someone is forced to say goodbye to their beloved ‘fur’ family member.

Keeping people and their pets together provides the best health outcome for both animal and owner. An abundance of research supports the physical and mental health benefits people enjoy from the unconditional love of a pet, including lower blood pressure, less anxiety and improved heart health. Maintaining healthy routines with pets can also alleviate symptoms of depression and may even slow dementia.

PetSure vet adviser Dr Betty Chan says education is key to help aged care providers understand the benefits of the human-animal bond for senior Australians. “Whether this is done through a public education campaign, research studies or by developing specific programs and resources for the aged care sector, there are many ways to highlight the range of positive impacts companion animals have for the elderly,” says Dr Chan.

“Allowing pets to move into retirement homes with their owners could attract a larger pool of residents for retirement homes and villages. More importantly, it could drastically improve the emotional and physical wellbeing of the residents in the home.”

Dr Betty Chan bio image

Dr Betty Chan

Veterinary Advisor and Relationship Manager at PetSure (Australia)

Lobbying for change

CANA is working to increase the number of pet-friendly aged care support services to prevent animals from being euthanised or surrendered to shelters, and it also promotes the social benefits for communities who welcome pets.

“CANA is doing some great work and has a range of free resources online to support aged care providers in becoming pet-friendly, including examples of pet policies and checklists,” says Dr Chan.

When approaching a residential facility to ask them to consider taking in a pet – whether it’s for yourself or a loved one – Dr Chan advises doing your research first.

“Check the home’s rules on pet ownership because depending on the state or territory, and the policy of the individual residence, different rules may apply,” she says. “Doing your research will arm you with the knowledge you need.”

“When you have the conversation, show that you’ve done your due diligence. This might include showing that you’ve checked the space is suitable for a pet and it’ll have access to outdoor space to go to the toilet, for exercise and enrichment.

“You could also show your pet is well trained and socialised by providing a certificate of behavioural training or by arranging a time for the home’s management to meet and observe the pet.”

If your chosen residential aged care facility doesn’t yet welcome pets, you could help to change their mind by:

  • presenting them with the findings of research on the positive impact of pets
  • organising pet-friendly events for residents, such as visits from pet therapy animals, to help build support for pets 
  • establishing pet-friendly spaces within the facility 
  • rallying support from fellow residents and their families. A collective voice can be powerful

4 Steps for taking your pet with you

By Dr Betty Chan 

  1. Check the retirement village or aged care home’s rules and laws on pet ownership. Speak to a representative at the facility so you can make an informed decision.
  2. Ensure the space is suitable for your pet. For dogs, consider where they’ll sleep, go to the toilet and check they’ll have access to an outdoor green space for exercise. For indoor cats, ensure there’s plenty of inside space for environmental enrichment.  
  3. Be mindful of other residents. Make sure your pet is well trained and friendly. Also, be aware of any residents who may be allergic to dogs or cats, so you can agree on a suitable arrangement and/or keep a respectable distance.
  4. Consider socialising opportunities. Check to see which other animals reside in the retirement home and if there’ll be opportunities for your dog to socialise on a regular basis – this is important for your dog’s wellbeing and enrichment.

Fast facts and furry friends

The Australian Seniors Series: For the Love of Pets Report 2024 finds…

  • 96% of over 50s say pets provide benefits like love, affection and companionship
  • 95% believe having a pet has a positive impact on their emotional wellbeing
  • 82% agree pets provide cognitive stimulation

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