The Power of Animals
With wellbeing at the centre of care home environments, therapy animals play a valuable role in care homes and similar healthcare settings, offering a range of physical, emotional and psychological benefits to residents or patients. These animals, often dogs, cats, or sometimes smaller animals like rabbits, can provide comfort and support to those in need.
As the Director of Customer Experience and Wellbeing at Avery Healthcare, Hannah Mulholland’s primary commitment is to the happiness and quality of life for residents in all Avery services. Hannah explained that one initiative that has gathered significant attention in recent years is the introduction of visiting therapy animals, which aim to enhance the resident’s wellbeing. There are, however, several considerations which must be kept in mind, ensuring it is right for the residents in individual homes.
First and foremost, we must acknowledge that some residents may suffer from allergies. In line with their dedication to ensuring an inclusive environment for all, Hannah revealed how her team encourage staff to create alternative activities for residents with allergies during therapy animal visits: “These include crafting sessions, book clubs and themed film screenings, ensuring that we have provided enjoyable alternatives for everyone. Respecting the individual preferences and boundaries of our residents is paramount.”
Therapy animal visits should always be optional, allowing residents to opt out if they choose to do so.
Maintaining proper hygiene and safety measures is essential for the wellbeing of care home residents, staff and therapy animals. Hannah explained how, at Avery, this involves a strict hand-washing routine for residents and staff, a designated space for therapy animal visits, and vigilant supervision during interactions to prevent accidents and ensure safety: “Before introducing therapy animals, we ensure we have a detailed understanding of each resident's health and specific needs. This deep understanding allows us to tailor the therapy animal program for maximum benefits while minimising risks.”
Utilising insured external providers of therapy animals is Hannah’s preferred approach. These providers ensure that therapy animals are well-trained and certified for therapy work. Collaboration with these professionals makes it easier to achieve seamless integration of therapy animals into homes, as they are experienced in a wide variety of settings and are fully in control for the duration of the activity. Hannah commented: “While therapy animals are generally well-trained and exhibit calm temperaments, unforeseen accidents can occur. Adequate insurance coverage provides protection for all.”
All wellbeing programmes are tailored to each home’s preferences, so regular feedback from residents and their families, in addition to staff observations, can help identify the effectiveness at each session, and allows teams to adapt to ensure residents are provided with a weekly activities calendar.
“By following these considerations, we can introduce therapy animals in a manner that enhances the lives of our residents and fosters a positive, enriching environment, ensuring safety, inclusivity and respect for individual preferences,” Hannah finished.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has become an easily accessible therapeutic intervention. This type of therapy is commonly used on mental health wards, supported living settings, and with dementia patients. With 900,000 individuals living with dementia - a figure projected to rise - it is even more important to consider therapeutic activity that helps people to live and age well.
Animals are proven to have a calming effect on humans, with many health benefits including reduced blood pressure and heart rates. The interaction we have with animals also promotes the release of serotonin, a feel-good chemical; it lifts the mood and can provide a welcome distraction to many older individuals.
At Weald Hall Care Home in Epping, they have their very own live-in therapy cat, Sooty. Danielle Barham, Home Manager of Weald Hall Care Home, owned by Premium Care Group said: “Knowing that pets rely on us for quality of life makes us feel special, which significantly boosts our residents’ wellbeing. He helps them to connect to those feelings of love and friendship and is a much-loved addition to our home.”
Danielle made a point of noting that, if having a full-time pet isn’t feasible in your care home, there are still plenty of options, with a number of external organisations offering therapy visits.
Yet, while animal therapy may offer up a number of health benefits and improve the quality of life for certain residents, Danielle echoed Hannah’s views on how it’s important to also consider those who might not be able to engage with animals because of allergies, and others who might just simply not want to connect with them at all. This should all be considered as part of an individuals’ care plan.
Danielle recognised how, for those with allergies who would still like that interaction, there are ways to ensure inclusivity: “The resident may only be allergic to one type of animal, for example a cat or dog. As well as 100 per cent hypoallergenic dog or cat breeds, such as the poodle, birds, alpacas and even kid goats are becoming increasingly popular visitors to homes, offering up another alternative.
“And what about AI? Robotic pets are artificially intelligent machines that resemble actual pets - a good alternative when the presence of a live animal might be inappropriate, or perhaps when a resident wants that attachment, but is not able to interact with a real animal safely.”
Danielle explained how many of her residents enjoy animal videos, so virtual animal encounters could also provide benefits to residents. There are many apps where pets can be looked after virtually, or you could simply sit down with a resident and take a moment to admire the cuteness of a kitten or puppy on-screen.
Care managers should consider the following before introducing any animal into their homes:
- The control and temperament of the animal/s
- Health and safety reviews
- Compliance with Public Health England and NICE guidance
- Routes of entry, exit and passage for the pet in the home
- Areas that pets are not allowed, i.e. food storage, preparation, cooking or serving areas
- Public liability insurance for both owners and handlers
- Hygiene considerations of both staff and residents after handling animals
One of the benefits of using an external organisation is that these animals will be fully trained and experienced in connecting with older people. They will also have the necessary health checks.
Providing residents with the opportunity to interact with animals as part of person-centred care can have a wealth of benefits. However, it is important to monitor and assess the impact of therapy animals on residents’ wellbeing, to ensure that the programme remains beneficial and safe to each individual.