Furry, four-legged volunteers

Sunday, May 23, 2004

A simple touch or rub of their dog's belly is all some people need to put them in a better mood. Studies have long shown that owning and caring for pets can help prolong some seniors' lives, lower blood pressure and even reduce stress.

Sarah McGowan already knows that.

A recreational therapist at St. Francis Medical Center and Southeast Missouri Hospital, McGowan once passed a puppy through a group of adults while giving a presentation about Pet Pals, a pet therapy program organized through the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri.

"You just feel good no matter what" when you get to pet or hold a puppy, she said. And that's exactly how pet therapy works, she explained to her audience.

McGowan has been taking her own dogs on visits for six years. She said a patient's overall mood can change almost immediately after seeing a dog.

And if a patient has had a bad day or a setback in therapy, a pet visit "can be the best part of their day," she said.

An ongoing study by the University of Missouri-Columbia reveals that interacting with and petting a dog also can help reduce depression. The study conducted by researcher Rebecca Johnson, a professor of nursing and veterinary medicine, found that serotonin levels rise in people who interact with dogs.

Full details of the study will be released in the fall, but the preliminary results show that programs like pet therapy can be of great benefit to patients who suffer from depression and other psychological illnesses.

Nursing homes and hospitals in Cape Girardeau and Jackson regularly get visits from furry, four-legged volunteers. During the past week, not a day went by that a nursing home or hospital wasn't scheduled for a visit.

The 22 dogs and two cats in the local Pet Pals program make visits to 14 nursing homes and both Cape Girardeau hospitals. The Missouri Veterans Home has its own resident pet -- golden retriever Petey who regularly comes to work with his owner Pam Klaus.

McGowan said patients in the hospitals' rehabilitation units really look forward to the weekly visits. Most of the patients are hospitalized for about 21 days, so they miss the pets they have to leave at home. McGowan said one woman would save part of her meal on the days Pet Pals would visit so she'd have a treat to share when the pets came.

Another man recovering from a brain tumor surgery was moved to tears when McGowan came to visit with her dog, Gabby. Though he couldn't speak, the staff was able to determine that he'd had a similar dog that had recently died.

"Because I was doing another activity, I asked him if he could just hold the leash and watch the dog," she said. The man was attentive, which was a dramatic change from his usual demeanor.

Mary Stuart, events and program manager for the Humane Society, said the shelter always gets compliments about Pet Pals. Whether it's a request from a nursing home that wishes to be included in the visitation rotation or a pet owner seeking information, there are always calls about Pet Pals, she said.

"People respond to a pet like nothing else," she said. Sometimes Stuart even takes puppies out of the shelter to visit invalids. "They always respond well and smile when we come," she said.

All the animals enrolled as Pet Pals volunteers have taken basic obedience lessons and must pass strict tests, which gauge how they react to rough petting, people who walk with canes or walkers, and how well they respond to verbal commands.

Pet Pals screens its volunteers based on the testing requirements set by the Delta Society. The testing complies with standards for training volunteers in animal therapy and is similar to the Canine Good Citizen Test offered by kennel clubs. The Delta Society was one of the first organizations nationwide to develop a training program for pets and people interested in a visiting animals program.

Once they pass the tests, the animals are invited to nursing homes, hospitals, schools and rehabilitation centers.

Not all dogs are suited for the program, but most have lively personalities and love the attention that comes with being a Pet Pal, said Laura Hurst, who organizes the monthly visitation schedule and conducts the testing for new Pet Pals volunteers, whether mutt or pedigree. There are about 24 volunteers currently making visits.

"There have been times in the past that I've taken six or seven visits in month just to fill in," she said. But with a growing number of people interested in Pet Pals, Hurst has been able to scale back.

Volunteers usually are tested for the Pet Pals programs three times a year. For information, phone the Humane Society at 334-5837.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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