Validation Training Institute

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Pet Therapy

So many people have sought emotional support during the pandemic. Many are living alone or sheltering in place with children and looking for engagement with another living being. You may recall the story last year of my Grandkitty who made the journey by van from Barcelona to Amsterdam for adoption by my son and his family. “Pewex” was imported primarily for his mousing skills, but has become a beloved family member.  The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that 6.5 million companion animals enter US animal shelters each year, roughly 3.3 million dogs and 3.2 million cats. In a typical year about 3.2 million are adopted plus over 700,000 are returned to their owners. In 2020 breeders, shelters, and pet stores reported a boom in demand not only for adoptions but also for fostering animals. In fact, the demand outweighed supply and many breeders have waiting lists well into 2021. In January, a shelter dog named “Major” became the first rescue animal to reside in the White House with the President and his family.

For older adults hunkered down in senior living communities, video chats with family don’t replace hugs and cuddles, but pet visits are the next best thing. Many nursing homes have  pets in residence who arrive daily with their staff masters and make their rounds for petting, playing, and snacking.  Longstanding pet therapy programs usually require the recruits to be screened and trained for their special duties. Animals are especially welcomed by residents who are often restricted to their rooms during COVID-19 lockdowns. The CEO of the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, New York praises the pets’ visits during the pandemic: “ They’ve [pets] been on the floors bringing happiness and unconditional love to residents and staff alike.” These little ambassadors must have the right temperament to mingle gently and be able to follow basic commands, cope with wheel chairs, elevators, medication and food carts, and not be spooked by all the sounds and activities on a floor.

While dogs are common in senior living communities, some cats are also used and both must be introduced  carefully because of potential pet allergies. What if you could simulate the movements, sounds, and reactions of real dogs and cats in robots? It turns out that “animatronic pets” are popular and widely available. Just google the phrase and you will find different websites and products for sale. The Alzheimer Store website features “playmate pets” and calls them “ the best gift to give someone with memory loss.” They offer different battery operated  models of “Tabby Cat,” “Tuxedo Cat,” “Silver Cat,” “Golden Pup,” and “Freckled Pup,” all “designed to bring comfort, companionship, and fun to elder loved ones.” Hasbro Toys has a division called Joy For All which sells “interactive companion pets” who tout the value of “stuffed animal therapy… which encourages nurturing feelings and reduces depression and feelings of isolation.” These products may be made of synthetic materials, but they give genuine pleasure with lifelike purrs and meows when they are held and stroked and are considered especially soothing for dementia patients. Of course they help evoke long-term memories of favorite pets and a time when the resident cared for others. This is the perfect opportunity to use Validation techniques to explore those feelings and memories.

Animals, real or stuffed, are shown to help in physical ways too by releasing endorphins, reducing blood pressure, agitation, and anxiety. Does your care community have resident pets? Would you like to share your experiences with them and residents living with cognitive loss consistent with dementia? We would love to receive your input at

By: Fran Bulloff, VTI President

The Validation Training Institute (VTI) is a non-profit organization that advances knowledge, values, education and research rooted in the Validation method. The objective is to nurture respect, dignity and well-being in the lives of older adults experiencing age-related cognitive decline and their caregivers. Our vision for the future is that every older adult experiencing age-related cognitive decline, and their caregiver, can feel the joy and love of meaningful communication.