Every dog and cat owner knows the joy of coming home to the wagging tails, purring, and unconditional love of our pets. Now, thanks to recent research and the efforts of dedicated, caring people, that love is being shared with nursing home patients, hospitalized individuals, and even persons with social, cognitive, and/or physical disabilities.
For thousands of years, humans have worked with our pets to help control herds of livestock, to sniff out all manner of danger, and to help individuals with physical limitations make the most of their world. In today’s world, our pets, both dogs and cats, are helping to alleviate the stress, anxiety, and overall worries of hospitalized patients.
Most people would agree that owning a pet can enhance your life and often leads to a lessening of stress at the end of the day. But, in a novel study, the American Heart Association has actually provided scientific proof that therapy with pets can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety among patients with heart failure. Carefully measuring vital signs and stress hormone levels in 76 heart failure patients, scientists found that those who had visits with therapy pets exhibited less anxiety. In addition, these patients had lower levels of the stress hormone, epinephrine, and had lower blood pressure and lung pressure scores when compared with patients who received only human visitors or none at all.
None of this is news to the Delta Society, a charitable organization whose mission is to “improve human health through service and therapy animals”. Since the 1970s, Delta Society (www.deltasociety.org) has been a leader in promoting the use of therapy animals to help educate the public about the health benefits of pet ownership and to help improve the recovery quality of ill patients. In a similar manner, Therapy Dogs International (www.tdi-dog.org) has also been serving the needs of hospitalized patients, nursing home residents, and other places where therapy dogs are needed. Between the two organizations, more than 20,000 dogs are registered across the United States and Canada.
An important clarification should be made between therapy dogs and service dogs. Almost everyone is familiar with the Seeing Eye Dogs or Canine Companions for Independence. These highly trained canines are specifically trained to assist the individual with the chores of day to day living. Most often, a service dog is likely to be one of just a few larger breed dogs. In contrast, a therapy dog, or cat, can be of almost any breed and size, as long as the temperament is sound. According to the Therapy Dogs website, all of their therapy animals have passed the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test in addition to training that gets the dog familiar with maneuvering around medical equipment or wheelchairs.
Animal Assisted Activities, or AAA, is the most common use of therapy pets. In AAA, dogs, cats, or even birds, are brought into situations to interact with individuals who may be bed-ridden or unable to interact in a normal social situation, such as children in long-term care facilities. More commonly called “meet and greet” sessions, these activities can help bring joy to people whose lives might otherwise consist of repetitious treatments or other activities that fail to stimulate their emotions and intellect. In a similar manner, Animal Assisted Therapy, or AAT, uses therapy pets to interact with a single individual. These activities have specific goals set for each individual and often involve coordinating certain physical actions with an interaction with the pet. For example, to help assist a child with fine motor skills, a therapist might bring a cat along and have the child feed the cat small treats from a container.
In many states, legislation has been passed that allows the visitation of canine and feline “therapists” to normally off limit areas such as hospitals. Even though these visits have documented beneficial effects, concerns about zoonotic disease transmission, or the welfare of immuno-compromised individuals should still be paramount. Also important is the welfare of the therapy pet itself. Many organizations have set guidelines as to when and where therapy pets can be used and will avoid taking pets into situations that might pose a risk.
Dog and cat owners who feel that their pet might make a good therapy animal should visit any of the above mentioned websites. As with any animal concern or question, talk with your veterinarian about his or her opinion of your pet’s qualifications. He or she will also be able to insure that your pet meets any health requirements of the organization. Visit www.MyVNN.com to see a video showing therapy dogs in action and to learn how you can help support this important work.