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by Neal C. Jennings

It is well documented that the presence of animals, especially dogs, is both physically and psychologically beneficial to individuals of all ages. Pets are particularly therapeutic for the elderly or infirm, who have become socially isolated. The purpose of this paper is to bring to the attention of administrators of nursing care centers the many factors involved in having resident dogs and cats in a nursing home environment -- and to discourage the practice, where other alternatives exist.


When there are no alternatives, keeping an "in-house" dog or cat can be quite beneficial. However, it is important to consider, from the resident's standpoint: that everyone may not care for the animal; that the pet may pick favorites and may not visit all who wish to see it; that unsupervised pet visits can be the cause of accidents for those who are physically unstable; and an owner is not always on hand, who knows the pet's nature and limitations.

The pet must be considered. To be fair to a dog, it must have one dependable master, for leadership, consistency, and comfort. Changing staff responsibilities for the pet is confusing. A dog, ranging free in the care center, may eat items dropped on the floor, or may slip out the door to the dangers of the streets.

Dogs can be unfortunate replacements for mops and vacuum cleaners, and can become sick or die from dropped medications. Without an owner nearby, a small pet can easily be dropped and injured. Lastly, just as with a human, a pet deserves regular quality health care.

Considering the care center staff's standpoint: time and attention must be given to the pet's training, quality food and fresh water, exercising the dog, maintaining a litter box for the cat, preventing escapes, and providing veterinary care. Regular bathing and grooming are important, and especially difficult for some types of dogs. Poodle grooming alone costs more than $150 a year.

If a resident dog is not working out well, it is often kept anyway. It has become a member of the family; many residents and staff members have become emotionally, if not wisely, attached to it; and it is always difficult to find it a new home. Mature, well-trained dogs should be selected rather than puppies, to avoid scratches from sharp teeth and claws -- not to mention house breaking and other necessary training.


Having volunteer-pet visits arranged by a structured pet-therapy visitation program is considered the most effective way to benefit from the human-animal bond in nursing care centers. Most well-planned programs see that visiting pets are carefully evaluated for selection and receive initial and periodic health examinations. The pets and their owners receive orientation and training.

Importantly, the owners know the limitations of their own pets and, are required to keep them on leash. Puppies and kittens are usually excluded. Volunteers are expected to divide their visiting among all residents of the care center rather than to only a few, as a lone resident dog do. A resident dog usually spends most of his time with residents who give it things it should not have.

Usually, a variety of dogs will be visiting every week, so residents will be interested in the different shapes and sizes. Small dogs may be placed on the beds, whereas very large dogs will be able to walk right up the edge of the bed where they can be seen clearly and petted easily. Most pet-visitation programs carry liability insurance, which should give everyone involved an additional feeling of assurance.


In a review of accidents involving pets in nursing homes around the country, for insurance purposes, there were found to be very few -- mostly minor scratches from kittens and puppies. One of the most serious was a broken hip sustained by a resident in Wisconsin. The resident was leading the dog on leash in the courtyard, when the leash became tangled in the lady's legs tripping her. In this case, a court suit, the dog was a resident dog.

During the past 6 years, resident dogs have been obtained by seven nursing homes in Scottsdale, Arizona. In one situation, the dog was barking at each volunteer-pet team which came for weekly visits. As the dog gradually became more disruptive, it was wisely relocated.

At another facility, their first resident dog escaped when a stranger came through the door. It was killed by an automobile. Unfortunately, the nursing home staff immediately obtained another. At a third nursing home, a young, but large, dog was obtained. Because of its size and lack of training, it created many problems for visiting volunteers. Several volunteers quit, partly because of the difficulty and partly because they felt they were no longer needed. Although, special arrangements were later being made to have the dog put in a secured area during pet visits, it was more difficult to recruit volunteers for that care center. And of course, cat visits are out of the question when a resident dog is guarding its territory. The dog was later removed, when it growled at a Corporate representative. A second dog was obtained, which apparently had been abused. It was easily frightened and spent most of the time under a table far from everyone.

A resident dog was obtained for another nursing home, extremely shy and afraid of men. Imagine an Alzheimer's patient cornering the dog to pet it. The welfare of the resident and liability to the care center should be more importantly considered.


The Delta Society, in Renton, Washington, is the repository for most of the research and information concerning the human-animal bond. It's annual conferences have served as excellent training for staff and volunteers of pet-visitation programs and those involved in other forms of animal therapy.

Studies have been made of several alternative forms of pet visits in nursing homes, such as: resident dogs, volunteers visiting with dogs from local animal shelters, and volunteers visiting with their own personal pets. The latter was found to be the most satisfactory.

It is important that nursing facility administrators consider all factors, including the liability involved, and avoid obtaining a resident dog, particularly if another alternative is available. Cats may be easier to handle and, certainly, birds and fish aquariums provide interesting diversions.

A carefully planned and well organized therapy pet-visitation program benefits everyone -- it is beneficial, both psychologically and physiologically, to the residents; provides a marketing asset to the nursing facility; gives the volunteers an opportunity to provide a valuable community service; and lastly, but not least, gives the volunteer pets the opportunity to get out into the community regularly and enjoy the continued and important socialization they need.

Health Care Centers would do well to encourage a good community program, and consider helping it meet its funding needs.

Neal Jennings has been an active leader in pet therapy visitation programs in Maryland, New Mexico, and Arizona for 15 years, is a member of the Delta Society and has participated in their Conferences.
Rev 2/1/99 Neal C. Jennings, President
Pets on Wheels of Scottsdale, Inc.
Voice Mail: 602/735-6886

The above article is hosted by DogPlay and contributed by Neal C. Jennings. I hope that it and other articles will be useful for people involved in Pet Assisted Therapy, Pet Assisted Activities and similar activities.

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Copyright © 1999 Neal Jennings     Created: February 1, 1999     Updated November 12, 2007    

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