Nursing homes, hospitals welcome therapy pets - and their humans

Monday, August 6, 2012
Alice Graefe shakes hands with Mrs. Cooper, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever-coon dog mix, during a visit at Chateau Girardeau. Mrs. Cooper and Linda Dirden, right, are part of the Pet Pals volunteer program. (ADAM VOGLER)

Joyce Stacy, social services coordinator at Chateau Girardeau, brings her golden retriever Buddy to work every day, but gobbling up treats isn't the only thing he does all day (though it's true that many residents keep treats for him).

"Buddy has encouraged residents to do therapy they didn't want to do and take medicine they didn't want to take. He lifts their spirits," says Stacy.

Buddy has been coming to Chateau for about nine years, since he was 6 weeks old. Stacy had been researching the Eden Alternative, a nursing home concept that incorporates a more homelike atmosphere, including animals and children. Stacy adopted a golden retriever because of the breed's mild temperate, and because they're smart and easy to train. She trained Buddy and brought him up around wheelchairs and walkers, and Stacy says he brings joy to the residents every day.

"They look forward to seeing him, and they miss him when he's not there," she says. Buddy enjoys his time there, too: "He will come visit them without anybody even asking or telling him to. A lot of the residents keep treats for him. He's pretty spoiled."

Chateau Girardeau also participates in Pet Pals, a volunteer pet therapy program affiliated with the Humane Society. Pet Pals coordinator Laura Hurst says the program has about two dozen pet-human teams who visit area nursing homes, as well as Southeast Hospital and Saint Francis Medical Center. Many people in hospitals and nursing homes are also pet owners, and they miss their furry friends at home. The goal of Pet Pals is to let those animal-lovers interact with pets at least once a week.

"It's been proven that they lower blood pressure, and they sure bring a smile to someone's face," says Hurst, who has been bringing her basset hounds on Pet Pals visits for years. "It's nice to be able to have a pet that others can enjoy. Anybody who has pets knows how special they are. If I end up in a nursing home one of these days, I hope that there's still a program like this and that people will bring pets in to visit me and brighten my week a bit."

Dr. Heidi Hunter is medial director for inpatient rehabilitation at Saint Francis Medical Center -- and a firm believer in pet therapy. In fact, she brings her golden retriever, another Buddy, to work once a week not just to visit with patients, but to actually help them with therapy. Patients walk Buddy, play fetch with him and pet him as part of their therapy. For example, a patient who had a stroke that affected the left side of the body may work on petting Buddy to stimulate movement in that hand.

"Petting a dog, or any animal, increases the immune system's ability to function and decreases blood pressure. Cardiac patients who have pets seem to live longer. Pets also decrease stress and anxiety," says Hunter. And when patients are in a good mental state of mind, it's good for their physical health, too, she says.

Many of Hunter's patients have suffered an instantaneous injury that totally changed their life, and they're anxious and depressed because of it, she says. The average stay in the rehab unit is 11 days, but stays range from five to 30 days.

"Buddy seems to lighten them up," she says. "For the people who have dogs at home, this gives them something to work for -- they want to go home and see their dog."

Having Buddy around seems to boost morale and put everyone -- the patients and the staff -- in a better mood.

"The days that he's here, everything seems to go more smoothly. People are motivated, and they're just so happy he's here. I think he's just as good for the staff as he is for the patients," says Hunter.

To become a therapy dog, Buddy went through obedience school, passed a canine good citizen test and also passed the Pet Pals test. According to Hurst, animals in the Pet Pals program need be able to sit and stay when told, walk well on a leash and interact well with strangers.

"The rest of the test is how they would react to several people petting them at once, loud noises and a bump from behind," says Hurst. Each pet is given an "exam" to see how they'll handle someone picking up their feet, holding their tail, petting them clumsily and so on.

"Not in a hospital so much, but in a nursing home, you never know what you're going to run into. The animal can't come unglued," says Hurst.

Cats are also welcome as Pet Pals, she says, but they're not easy to find. Pet Pals has had cats before, but there are none currently.

"Some people really miss their cats just like others miss their dogs. We would love to see a cat come in, but not that many cats have that disposition," says Hurst. "Basically, the only thing we have to do to test a cat is see if they're able to pass that cat to three different people."

Hunter says pet therapy has been around since the 1700s, but it's still not very common in health care institutions. Still, she hopes it will start to take off as researchers continue to learn about how mental and physical health are interrelated.

"The recovery is quicker and better," she says. "We just have to find the right people and the right animals."

Hurst says Pet Pals is always looking for more human and animal volunteers. For more information or to take a Pet Pals test, call the Humane Society at 573-334-5837.

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