Monday, May 23, 2016


Pet therapy: Healing methods that have gone to the dogs

Pet therapy isn’t just fun, fur and games. According to the Mayo Clinic, interaction with a gentle, friendly pet can result in many physical health benefits such as:

• lowering blood pressure
• releasing endorphins (oxytocin) that have a calming effect
• diminishing overall physical pain
• producing an automatic relaxation response from the act of petting, reducing the amount of medication some folks need.

There are also many emotional health benefits:

• lifting spirits and lessening depression
• decreasing feelings of isolation and alienation
• encouraging communication
• providing comfort
• increasing socialization
• reducing boredom
• lowering anxiety
• helping children overcome speech and emotional disorders
• creating motivation for a person to recover faster

On their website, the risks of pet therapy have been addressed. The biggest concern, particularly in hospitals, is safety and sanitation. Most hospitals and other facilities that use pet therapy have stringent rules to ensure that the animals are clean, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior.

It's also important to note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never received a report of infection from animal-assisted therapy.

My friend Fran Poris volunteers in the Center for Healthcare Integration (CHI) at Backus Hospital. I asked her to share a little about her experiences as a certified pet therapist.

“I was a special education teacher for 37 years. In my last year of teaching, I brought my Bearded Collie puppy Quincy (named after a former student) to school with me so my fifth graders could read to him. The program was so popular that all the fifth graders, not only my students, wanted a chance to read to him.”

“Quincy and I have volunteered at schools, libraries, nursing homes, Center for Hospice Care and at Backus Hospital. When I clip Quincy’s nametag and blue leash onto his collar he knows it is time to work.”

“There are places Quincy likes to visit more than others. One of those places is Backus Hospital. Quincy can hardly wait to jump out of the car when he sees where we are going and his tail wags enthusiastically. He loves when people pet him, talk to him and scratch his back. Quincy, being motivated by food, loves when patients give him treats that I provide for him. The first year that we volunteered, I brought dog treats for patients to give him and Quincy gained 10 pounds! Now I bring kibble from his dinner and that works equally well.”

“People often think that pet therapy is just for patients. Not so. Quincy makes doctors, nurses, staff and visitors feel happy as well. Many people have told me that we made their day with our visit. Patients too ill to talk often place their hands on Quincy’s head to pet him or just smile when they see him next to their beds. Patients who have pets at home are especially grateful for a visit from Quincy. They miss their pets and tell me stories about their animals.”

“Just like people have their favorites, so does Quincy. He has even formed bonds with favorite patients. He enthusiastically wags his tail and snuggles up to his favorites waiting for a scratch behind his ears or on his back,” Poris said.

It’s hard not to smile at that image. It helps us to visualize man’s best friend as a healer with paws and fur.

Alice Facente is a community health education nurse for the Backus Health System. This advice should not replace the advice of your personal health care provider. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at or e-mail Ms. Facente or any of the Healthy Living columnists at

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