Therapy Dogs and Cats - Unleashing TLC
In 1997, Nancy Kucik entered a pet supply store with the sole purpose of buying cat litter for her then only cat, Fluffy. Something made her take a detour past the shelter kittens and cats on display for adoption. A 5-month-old kitten charmed Kucik by reaching out his paw and tapping her on the shoulder. When she held him, he wrapped his front paws around her neck and unleashed a full-throttle purr.
“That’s all it took to win me over,” says Kucik, a health writer from Pelham, Alabama. “I called my husband and told him I was bringing home a kitten. We named him Laser.”
Since then, Laser has been winning over children at hospitals and seniors in psychiatric wards. His decade-long dedication to helping people in need has earned him many awards, including the ASPCA Cat of the Year for 2006 and a Beyond Limits award from Delta Society, a national organization that helps to promote the human–animal bond.
Laser proves that dogs aren’t the only animals who make ideal therapy pets. Cats, rabbits, and horses can unleash therapeutic benefits on people of all ages and circumstances. “I remember when Laser and I attended our first therapy training class,” Kucik says. “We walked into the room, and everyone else there had dogs. Up to that point in Laser’s life, I don’t think he had ever been in contact with a dog, but he was cool and laid back.”
Pets have been found to have a positive effect on blood pressure, cholesterol, depression, and stress.
Marty Becker, DVM, a veterinarian from Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, has championed the human–animal bond for nearly two decades and serves on the Delta Society board. He credits Scooter, his beloved wirehaired fox terrier, for helping him recover from extensive spinal surgery in 2001.
“Throughout my entire veterinary career, I have studied and lectured on the human–animal connection and had witnessed this healing power in clients, family members, and friends, but I personally experienced it when I was basically flat on my back following spinal surgery,” says Dr. Becker. “Step by step, Scooter acted as my own little physical therapist and motivational coach. Back then, the 200 yards from my house to the barn seemed so far away, but Scooter proved to be the perfect pet prescription for me. She made the physical therapy a joy, not drudgery.”
He found himself laughing again and enjoying things in life he once took for granted—like the picturesque surroundings of his Idaho ranch. “Scooter was good for me. She helped me reawaken myself to the natural world and acted as a wonderful laughter catalyst,” he says.
Following his recovery, Dr. Becker traveled across the country, interviewing physicians, scientists, and other experts about the science behind a companion animal’s ability to detect, treat, and cure a host of diseases and conditions. The research was presented in his book, The Healing Power of Pets.
“About 65% of American households have pets, but we’re just now tapping into the power our pets possess in helping us heal emotionally, physically, and mentally,” he says. “We are learning of pets who sniff out cancers undetectable to doctors and others who sense when their owners are about to have a heart attack, seizure, or panic attack.”
Animal-assisted therapy can have a positive effect on educational and physical well-being and mental health.
These days, the reach of therapy pets has expanded to soldiers injured in Iraq and recovering from their wounds at military hospitals like Walter Reed in Washington, DC. Making regular visits to Walter Reed are therapy teams from People Animals Love (PAL), a nonprofit organization that serves the Washington, DC, area.
Joseph Cavarretta, PAL executive director, shares the impact a pair of dogs had on one solider. “Hank, a German shepherd, and Cordymay, a Bernese mountain dog, were brought in to visit a soldier in a coma,” says Cavarretta. “The soldier’s bed was lowered to facilitate contact with the dogs. After a frustrating half-hour of no response, the soldier’s eyes suddenly popped open. What a humbling experience.”
Earl Strimple, DVM, founder and chairman of PAL, adds, “Members of our organization have the chance to do something good with their best friends—their pets. Companion animals really enhance the lives of people.”
Edward Creagan, MD, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, agrees. About 10 years ago, he started noticing how pets brought into the clinic improved the attitudes—and health—of some of his patients. He now makes sure to include notes about family pets when taking down medical histories of his patients.
“Many times, the family pet is the anchor, the beacon that can motivate a patient to give his or her best effort to deal with a serious illness like cancer,” says Dr. Creagan. “We need to tap into the healing power of fur, fins, and feathers.”
QUICK THERAPEUTIC TIPS
Here are three easy and healthy ways to tap into the healing power of your cat or dog:
Spend some time each day just listening to and talking with your pet. This helps release those “feel good” biochemicals that help you relax and fight stress.
Rub your pet the right way. Spend quiet, one-on-one time giving your pet a 5-minute therapeutic massage to slow your heart rate and relax your muscles.
Engage in purposeful play with your pet. You might discover that you can let go of daily stress more easily, breathe more deeply, and laugh more freely.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT PET THERAPY PROGRAMS
If you’re interested in teaming up with your people-pleasing dog or cat, consider contacting one of these nonprofit organizations:
Delta Society—This national group’s mission is to improve human health through service and therapy animals.
People Animals Love (PAL)—This group provides therapy pet programs in schools, prisons, and military hospitals in Washington, DC, and the surrounding areas.