Animals and Healing, How Assisting Hands Contributes to the Cause.
“Pet visits with Speedo (a five-pound Chihuahua pet therapy dog) are a very important activity that our residents really look forward to,” says Brad Ray, Activities Director at Park Health and Rehabilitation Center in St. Louis Park. “With so many former pet owners in our population, the positive memories associated with former pets can be rekindled through pet therapy. Speedo is just the right size and demeanor for our residents to make that connection.”
Speedo, the certified pet therapy dog, is one of many throughout the Twin Cities whose owners volunteer them to provide emotional stimulus and healing to seniors in hospitals and nursing homes.
What is Animal Assisted Therapy
Animal Assisted Therapy (ATT) can be as simple as visiting a patient to provide company for emotional healing. Pet therapy can also help stimulate muscles during rehabilitation for stroke patients or those who suffer from a physical handicap. Although studies on human-animal interactions were not started until the late 1970’s, evidence has accumulated for the benefits animals provide to humans. Most of the research and information on AAT is not scientific data but testimony and experience collected by doctors, veterinarians, nurses and patients.
Several studies give evidence into the relationship between humans and animals. Owning an animal can have strong effects on improving psychological health in seniors. Whether owning a pet or merely participating in simple interactions, seniors can experience a boost in morale, lower heart rate and decreased loneliness. According to Marian R. Banks and William A. Banks, authors of The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Loneliness in an Elderly Population in Long-Term Care Facilities, studies show that pet ownership is one of the strongest factors that predicted survival in patients with a history of heart attacks. Additional studies have shown contacts with pets-specifically dogs and cats-can help interaction with non-communicative patients. Joanne Roth, psychiatrist at the University of LaVerne in LaVerne, California, stated in her thesis that animal interaction can help recall memories and help sequence events temporarily in patients who have head injuries, dementia and Alzheimer’s. Animals can also improve self-esteem, which helps patients interact and socialize with one another.
In an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Evelyne Michaels, Consulting Writer and Editor for the Health Council of Canada, results were recorded from experiments conducted at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, involving ATT. Patients felt happier, asked for less medication, complained less and staff has taken a renewed interest in their patients. If research continues, eventually doctors and nurses may further recognize the importance of animals in the medical environment. Michaels also states that animals provide an unconditional love that is irreplaceable by any other means; human-animal contact enforces positive and affective emotions in lonely and uncomfortable environments. Michaels points out that previous studies have proved contact with animals can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure more than contact with humans.
AAT is not only specific to cats and dogs; birds, reptiles and horses can be used in the healing process. Some hospitals provided horseback rides for disabled and physically challenged patients while others allow patients to keep their own pets or assist in the care of pets owned by the facility.
Assisting Hands and Speedo
Kaleb Vold, owner of Speedo, is also the owner of Assisting Hands Home Care of Minneapolis. Setting up volunteer visits with the Assisting Hands’ dog, Speedo, has been found to change the way patients feel and interact on a daily basis. Without scientific research to back up the positive results, Vold states that his experience has taught him how important it is for seniors to share love and how content they are when the pet is around. Many people joke that they would be happy if Speedo could stay in their laps all day.
“Speedo brightens the day of every resident that he visits at Golden Living Center-Hillcrest of Wayzata. Residents enjoy being able to pet Speedo as he lies in their laps and talks to him as if he is their very own pet.” Says Megan VenHorst, Therapeutic Recreation Director and Volunteer Coordinator. She continues, “Pet therapy can be imperative to patients’ overall well-being and happiness. Patients can relate to pet therapy dogs in ways they cannot with human beings. It can help release stress and provide comfort to patients.”