Pet Therapy: Huggable Healthcare Workers

A dose of Schnapps is Marguerite Ryner's favorite medicine. "Give me some sugar," she tells Schnapps, a charcoal schnauzer who visits her at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. Cradling the pup, Ryner coos, "I could keep you all day."

Schnapps gives her some sweet relief. As Ryner explains, "It feels good to hold her. If you're down or handicapped and you can't get out or maneuver yourself around, it really gives you a lift and it makes you feel good. Even if I am in pain, I feel very good. This program should be promoted in all hospitals."

Ryner's wish may soon come true. Schnapps and her handler, Kate Fischer, are partners in a volunteer animal-assisted therapy program, a form of complementary care that's increasingly common in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes.

The comforting effects of animals have been noticed through the years. Even Florence Nightingale recommended "a small pet animal" as an "excellent companion for the sick." But a growing number of studies support anecdote with evidence that animals really can help the healing process.

Pet Therapy: A Proven Remedy

Since 1990, the largest organization devoted to promoting animal-assisted therapy, the Delta Society, has trained over 3,000 volunteer animal-human teams in five countries to participate in its Pet Partners program.

Their "therapy" roles can range from just spreading a little love among patients like Marguerite Ryner, to actively participating in physical rehabilitation.

Karen Lefrak and her poodle Jewel work with patients in the rehabilitation center at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. On the day She TV tagged along, they were trying to help a stroke patient named Pat gain more control over her shoulders and more response from an immobile hand.

"The dog can be a distraction to the pain that a patient feels, and also to the rigor or the monotony of the therapy," Lefrak explains. Over the years, she says she's witnessed the good animal-assisted therapy can do, "For one, it provides comfort for those who respond to animals. It also is a method to improve movement, to improve speech, and cognitive functioning, all of which can I guess be quantifiable and documented to some extent."