"Until one has loved an animal," the French novelist Anatole France wrote, "a part of one's soul remains unawakened."
He was right. A pet's companionship, comfort and non-judgmental nature can be powerful therapeutic tools. The growing Animal-Assisted Therapy movement seeks to increase animal-patient interaction to improve health and wellness. This form of therapy is being used to raise spirits in nursing homes and assisted living facilities; to soothe terminal patients; to support veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; to benefit children with special needs, like autism; and to improve the health and mood of family caregivers.
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Modern pet therapy dates to the 1860s, when famed nurse Florence Nightingale recognized how well animals provided social support for institutionalized, mentally ill patients. The American Red Cross deployed dogs to military and convalescent hospitals after World War II and relief organizations used dogs, cats and rabbits to help Hurricane Katrina victims recover from trauma.
Older patients in particular seem to benefit. A 2009 study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practices said pets were linked to higher perceived energy levels, lessened pain and anxiety, improved respiratory rates and better moods. Animal interaction, it seems, provides patients not only with a welcome distraction, but also a sense of purpose and a comforting reminder of home.
"If pet ownership was a medication, it would be patented tomorrow," oncologist Edward Creagan of the Mayo Clinic has said. "Having a pet around is like an effective drug — but without any side effects. I can't always explain it." The clinic employs more than a dozen dogs in its Caring Canines program for patients of all ages.
Silverado Senior Living, which operates assisted living residences, hospice sites and home-care services focused on patients with Alzheimer's disease, dementia and related conditions in eight states, has been a pioneer in integrating pet therapy into dementia care. The company's assisted living residents are encouraged to keep pets, which are also a regular presence in its long-term facilities.
"When we first opened our doors back in 1996, our goal was to make this community as much a home as possible," says Steve Winner, Silverado's co-founder and "chief of culture." "Since we are all animal lovers, we realized how important pets are to our lives and to our residents. This became a home not just for people with dementia but for the animals they love."
The first question many family members ask when they discover that an assisted-living facility or nursing home has pets is whether conditions are sanitary. The Mayo Clinic cites data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that there has never been a reported case of infection due to interaction with pets in any such facility.
What Pet Therapy Can Do for You
When family caregivers struggle to make progress with a loved one's care or rehabilitation, pet therapy can provide motivation. "We worked with an older gentleman in an assisted living facility who was recovering from a broken hip," says Jan Vincent, a director of the nonprofit Animal Health Foundation of California. "His rehabilitation was painful and he often did not want to do his exercises. His older daughter turned to us for help because her father had always loved dogs and she thought the interaction might motivate him. We arrived and asked him to help us walk our dog. All of a sudden he had a purpose beyond his own therapy and this change in focus and gentle distraction helped him recover sooner, according to his daughter and doctor. It was a magical moment."
Anyone interested in pet therapy can search for local resources through Pet Partners, formerly known as the Delta Society, a national nonprofit organization that conducts research, provides training and maintains the nation's largest registry of therapy groups. Pet Partners estimates that its 11,000-plus teams of pooches and people alone make more than 1 million visits to patients each year.
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Caregivers often benefit from pet therapy as much as those they care for. Fifty percent of people tending a family member with dementia report some level of depression, according to a UCLA study recently published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Pets can help ease caregivers' struggle with their own emotions and frustrations.
"Dogs have a sense of smell that is so acute they can identify the hormonal changes in our bodies, such as a cortisol increase that leads to more stress," Vincent says. "They are also keen observers — much better than people — and read our body language perfectly." When a person is anxious or sad, trained therapy animals will seek to soothe and comfort.
Pet Partners cites remarkable anecdotal evidence of the power of pet therapy. For example, one affiliate team of a therapy cat and its handler, veteran nurse Donna Williamson, reported for a scheduled visit with a terminally ill patient, only to be told that he had since slipped into a coma. Williamson placed the cat on the bed anyway and the patient awoke, lifted his arms from under the sheets and started to pet the animal.
Such interactions may be unusual, but pets reliably encourage the human need to touch and be touched, and our desire to play, exercise and laugh. A range of studies have found that spending just a few minutes a day interacting with a dog, cat or rabbit can decrease cortisol, increase serotonin levels and lower heart rate and blood pressure. The vibration made by purring cats may stimulate healing and growth in bones. And older pet owners have higher one-year survival rates following coronary heart disease diagnosis.
(MORE: The 5 Lessons Learned From Animals, and They're Not What You Expect)
For family caregivers struggling to motivate loved ones, spur recovery and alleviate stress, maybe it's time to call for one of these trained companions to come to the rescue.
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