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Does your pet have what it takes to be a therapy pet?

We often talk about how much we do for our pets, as opposed to how much they do for us. Yes, we work hard to feed, walk, and clean up after them. But they act silly and make us smile. They snuggle on the couch to keep us company. They play games with us. They simply make us feel good, and making people feel good is a very important job! Just ask anyone who knows a therapy pet.

Therapy pets are animals that visit hospitals, retirement homes, hospice centers, nursing homes and schools. Although most therapy pets are dogs, other species such as cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and horses are good candidates. These lovable pets are well trained, have good temperaments, and are people-friendly. Plus, they have a good work ethic!

Pawsome Benefits

Successful pet therapy is based on the human-animal bond and involves three parts: pet, owner, and patient. The purpose of pet therapy is simple: to help people cope with health or emotional problems and make them feel good.

The primary beneficiaries are residents of care facilities who are often stressed or depressed. Pet therapy decreases depression and increases self-esteem, while encouraging three-way interaction between patient, pet, and pet owner. This interaction is calming, reduces anxiety, and improves a patient’s overall psychological state.

Specific benefits of pet therapy include: improvement of motor skills and movement (petting a cat is actually exercise!), decreased feelings of isolation (having a furry friend is a great emotional boost), improved social skills and verbal communication (pets are great social buffers and automatic conversation starters), decreased monotony and boredom (pets are entertaining), and improved overall emotional outlook (pets make us happy). Moreover, visiting with a pet stimulates endorphin release, decreases blood pressure, and may improve cardiovascular health.

Opportunities to Do Good

  1. Therapeutic visitation is the most common type of pet therapy, in which owners take their personal pets to visit health care facilities. Many hospitalized patients miss the pets they left at home. A visit from a pet can motivate them to get better so they can return home to their own fur babies.
  2. Animal-assisted therapy involves animals specially trained to assist physical and occupational therapists with their patients. Pets can improve limb mobility and fine motor skills in patients as they stroke their coats. Imagine how a game of fetch could help improve a patient’s physical AND mental state! Plus, therapy pets help patients relearn pet care skills so they can take care of their own pets when they return home.
  3. Facility therapy is a little different. These therapy pets often reside at the care center and are trained to monitor and engage patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other mental illnesses. They learn the limitations and boundaries of the residents and help keep them safe.

The Beneficiaries

People of any age with physical, medical, or emotional problems, whether long or short term, can benefit from pet therapy. From bedridden patients to more active residents, pet therapy helps a wide range of people. People, young and old, find that the presence of a pet is comforting, entertaining, and distracting, so just about anybody can participate.

Provided their immune systems are functioning well, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy may appreciate the company of a pet during treatment sessions. Pets may facilitate psychological therapy for people with post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional issues. People with cardiac problems and hypertension may reap the rewards of lowered blood pressure associated with pet contact.

Pet therapy is great, but it is not for everyone. Some people simply do not like animals and being around a pet may increase their stress level. Patients with weak immune systems also have to be very cautious about their contact with pets, in case of any asymptomatic infectious diseases the pet may be carrying.

Keeping it Safe

Interacting with pets is usually a safe encounter, but people and pets can both be unpredictable. The key element in pet therapy is the pet, but the handler is important, too. Both need training. Dogs should be obedience trained and handlers should know how to control their pet. There are experienced organizations that assess and train pet therapy teams, including Human Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC),Professional Therapy Dogs of Colorado (PTDC) and Denver Pet Partners.

To qualify, pets must be mild-mannered and calm. An overly active dog or cat that jumps up on a patient can cause unintentional harm. Even a small scratch could present physical and emotional problems for a patient. Pet owners/handlers have to be friendly and interactive, too. Their presence is an additional comfort to residents. Many therapy groups match health care facilities with suitable therapy teams.

On the flip side, patients must also be gentle with the pets. Dropping a small dog or cat can hurt them. Squeezing a larger pet can be uncomfortable. To minimize problems, pets should be desensitized to common handling: rubbing ears, patting heads, etc. The owner/handler should stay close to the pet to ensure safety of all concerned.

Pets also have to be healthy and clean! They cannot introduce pathogens to the medical environment. Dogs and cats should be bathed and brushed to reduce dander which can be problematic for people with allergies. All pets should be up-to-date with their immunizations and be free of internal (intestinal worms) and external (fleas, ticks, lice, mites) parasites.

Although they are often registered as service animals, therapy pets are not service animals. Service animals live with a disabled person and perform assistance tasks. Therapy pets live with their owners and are regular pets. They visit people at health care facilities but do not “belong” to any one patient and are not specifically assistance trained. 

However, therapy pets are an asset to health care and have an important job, helping both children and adults with a variety of physical and mental issues. We do a lot for our pets, but they do a lot for us; therapy pets do even MORE to make people feel good. You and your animal share the ability to improve the life of someone in need.