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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."

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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."

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Indeed, several studies have measured the beneficial effects animals can have on people. In 1985, University of Pennsylvania researchers reported that stroking a dog or cat can lower blood pressure in individuals with hypertension.

Another study found that elderly people caring for a pet showed improved alertness. Dog owners who have suffered a heart attack have been found to be significantly less likely to die in the year following the heart attack compared to heart attack survivors who didn't own dogs.

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One multi-state study found that medication costs dropped an average of $3.80 per patient, per day, in new nursing home facilities where animals were included in the environment.

Even fish can help people feel better. One study found that patients experienced less anxiety prior to undergoing a medical procedure if they had been watching fish swimming in an aquarium beforehand.

Such research has helped to confirm what some healthcare providers have sensed for centuries. In 1790s England, the Society of Friends ran a well-documented retreat for the mentally ill where patients learned to care for animals and work in a garden as part of their therapy.

A similar program for people with disabilities has existed in rural Gheel, Belgium since the ninth century, according to Mary Burch, Ph.D., author of Volunteering With Your Pet.

In the United States, animal visitation has been used in a mental health program at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. since 1919. During World War II, patients at Army Air Corps hospitals were encouraged by Red Cross aides to do farm work to keep their minds off the war.

A decade later, New York child psychiatrist Borris Levinson, Ph.D. noted that when his dog Jingles attended therapy sessions, he was able to make more progress with one disturbed patient.

Levinson began using his dog in sessions with other patients and found that many of the children who were usually withdrawn would interact more willingly with Jingles. His research began a trend toward standardizing animal-assisted therapy techniques for both the human and animal participants.

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Almost any domesticated animal can become a therapy animal. There is even experimental work using dolphins in therapy with disabled children and adults. Among the Delta Society's registered "Pet Partners" are rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, goats, pot-bellied pigs, horses, donkeys, African gray parrots, cockatoos, chickens, and llamas. But dogs are still by far the most common and popular animal therapists.Michele Siegel trains dogs and their handlers to become certified assisted therapy teams. In simulated hospital and patient situations, she screens the dogs for good behavior, skills and temperament.

"There is no one breed...it's the individual. They have to like people, enjoy interacting with people. They have to be able to acclimate to new environments because we visit various facilities," she explains.

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Jewel the poodle, a former show dog, is one of Siegel's star pupils. On an average day, Jewel sees three to four patients and demonstrates the same calm and discipline that made her a champion in the ring. Karen Lefrak says proudly of her partner, "She has an amazing temperament...gentle and calm, she hardly barks, she wants very much to please people."

Before becoming volunteer visitors, Kate Fischer and Schnapps also had to be tested and trained. Fischer recalls, Schnapps had to be able "to be hugged, to be squeezed, to be cried into, to be yelled at, to have things dropped on her, to handle crowds, to handle a crowded hallway, loud noises, wheelchairs going by, people bumping into her, people dropping walkers on her."

Handlers are also screened to make sure they can tolerate some of the disturbing scenes they might encounter, from outbursts by mentally ill patients to the sight of gruesome injuries. For Fischer it's all worthwhile when she sees the effect she and Schnapps can have.

"We come and their faces light up. People who are just hurting, and you know they're hurting, and then the dog comes and you can see them forgetting their pain. I'm not sure it lessens the pain—it certainly creates an island from it."

As Michele Siegel puts it, "I hope that if we're doing what we should be doing, and I'm training the people to be going out there doing what they should, that the patients feel love and they feel special, which they are, and that the people that are doing this type of work with their dogs feel just as good about themselves when they leave."

And what about the furry feel-good therapists themselves? If Schnapps is any indicator, they seem to enjoy being able to practice what they do best. "She's bouncing up and down to get here," Fischer says between visits at St. Vincent's Hospital, "She's quiet when she's here, but she adores coming here because she knows she goes into someone's arms and they love, and she gives love back."

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