Dr. Dirk Pilat, a general practitioner in London, has been prescribing a little something different for some of his patients: animal-handling sessions.

Specifically, he's been referring them to the Furry Tales team, which is made up of two guinea pigs, two rabbits and a hen from a nearby farm.

Ione Maria Rojas, founder of Furry Tales, says watching her granddad's struggles with dementia inspired her to create a project that encouraged "non-verbal communication and authentic connection" in older people.

"I've seen the effects animals have when used in a therapeutic way," she told The Guardian. "But it's frustrating it's still an area not taken seriously by Western medicine because it's difficult to prove quantitatively."

Cuddle therapy

elderly person petting guinea pigNumerous studies have found that the elderly can benefit from spending time with animals, and some have even revealed that interacting with animals may be more beneficial than spending time with other people.

Dr. William Banks of Saint Louis University found that nursing home residents reported feeling less lonely after spending time alone with a dog than when other people joined in on the canine visit.

Banks and his team had suspected that the visiting dog would encourage socialization among residents and reduce loneliness. However, those who spent alone time with man's best friend actually benefited the most.

"It was a pretty surprising finding," Banks told The Associated Press.

What is it about spending time with animals that’s so rewarding?

Petting and interacting with a dog, cat or other animal can relieve stress, and animals can also lend a listening ear to lonely people. While isolation can make disorders like depression worse, simply scratching a cat's ears or talking to a dog can be therapeutic and boost a person's mood.

Seniors that have their own pets also benefit from more frequent exercise, and caring for animals like dogs can provide many opportunities to socialize with other dog owners.

senior woman hugging dogHaving a pet also adds routine to your day. Pets require a regular feeding and exercise schedule, and they may be just the boost a lonely person needs to get out of bed each day.

Studies even show that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.

But the benefits of pet ownership aren't just mental. The American Heart Association has linked pets to a reduced risk for heart disease, and research has also found that people with pets have lower blood pressure and elevated levels of serotonin and dopamine — brain chemicals that aid in relaxation.

Pets aren't right for everyone

However, experts say that pet companionship isn't ideal for all seniors. In fact, sometimes having a pet can be stressful or even dangerous.

Thousands of people go to the emergency room each year because of falls involving pets.

And not all studies conclude that pet ownership is beneficial.

A 2011 study of elderly people in Pennsylvania found that the more attached people were to their pets, the more depressed they actually were, and a Pew Center survey found no difference between Americans with pets and without them in the proportion who rated themselves "very happy."

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Photos: (guinea pig) suemack/iStockphoto, (woman hugging dog) Kali Nine LLC/iStockphoto
Pets can help seniors stay happy and healthy
Spending time with animals can combat loneliness and encourage exercise, but they aren't right for every senior.