The Magic of Pet Therapy

Does your pet have a talent for comforting those in need? Volunteering for pet therapy is a great way to spend more time with your pet, while also improving the lives of people in your community.Pet Therapy

Kit Darling, infection control coordinator at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, says pet therapy can have a multitude of benefits for many different types of people.

As president of Aggieland Pets with a Purpose, a pet therapy organization in the Bryan/College Station area, Darling has personally seen the positive impacts that therapy animals, including her own dogs, can have on people in need.

“Animals have a non-judgmental nature,” Darling said. “It does not matter what you look like or if you are happy or sad, they can provide joy and comfort for you.”

Pet therapy is often used to help people in hospitals or long-term care facilities, including assisted living, rehabilitation centers, and skilled nursing facilities. Therapy animals can also comfort people with special needs, such as autism, Down syndrome, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or brain injuries.

“Therapy animals can lower blood pressure, relieve stress and anxiety, decrease loneliness, increase activity, improve communication, and enhance social opportunities,” Darling said.

By brushing, playing with, and talking to animals, patients in physical, occupational, or speech therapy can become more motivated to complete therapy activities.

In schools, therapy animals can provide a source of stress-relief before exams and even encourage kids to speak and read more in the classroom.

“Children can read out loud to the animal and it will not judge, criticize, or laugh if the child does not pronounce a word correctly,” Darling explained. “The animal can help the child improve their self-confidence, self-esteem, and social skills.”

Pets that are friendly, calm around people and animals, and well-trained may make good therapy animals. To get involved in pet therapy, Darling recommends searching for local groups and seeing what requirements they have.

Although every organization may have slightly different requirements, the Canine Good Citizen test can be a good starting point for training therapy dogs. This test determines how a dog reacts to loud noises, meeting new people or animals, and being touched or tugged on, as well as how it does with leash walking and basic commands like “sit” and “stay.”

Besides local organizations, larger groups like Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners can also help with certifying an animal for therapy work and finding a place to volunteer.

If you have the desire to make a difference in your community, look into volunteering for pet therapy with your dog, cat, or other animal. Even little things like hugging a dog or hearing a cat purr can make a big difference for someone who needs to experience the unconditional love of pets.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

The Unconditional Love of Pets

petting a dogThe human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and their animals, influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Kit Darling, infection control coordinator at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, has spent years studying the human-animal bond.

This bond is most evident in the relationship that forms between people and their pets.

“Think about the feelings you have when you come home to a pet that is excited to see you,” Darling said. “Pets are non-judgmental and provide unconditional love, meaning, and joy to our lives.”

The relationship pet owners form with their animals can be emotional, psychological, and physical, according to Darling. Pets can help decrease loneliness, relieve stress and anxiety, and provide opportunities for exercise, play, and recreation.

“Spending quality time and doing activities with your pets can strengthen your bond with them,” Darling said. “This may include going for walks, doing training classes, participating in shows and events, and doing animal-assisted activities.”

Though all pets can provide emotional support and love for their owners, dogs have a history of being used for therapy work.

“There are some special animals such as therapy dogs that are trained to provide unconditional love, affection, and comfort to groups of people,” Darling said.

Many cities have local organizations that focus on pet therapy work. In College Station, Aggieland Pets With A Purpose teaches people how to train their pets for therapy work and takes volunteers to visit places in the community.

Darling said therapy dogs can comfort people in hospitals, long-term care facilities, hospice, schools, and disaster areas.

“The dogs can help people accomplish goals in physical, occupational, and speech therapy,” she said. “People are excited to come to their therapy sessions when the dogs are present; I have seen people respond to therapy dogs when they have not responded to people.

“Residents at nursing homes anxiously wait in the lobby when our dogs visit,” she continued. “A college student studying for finals enjoys taking a break to visit with the dogs and relieve stress. Nursing staff at a hospital find a little relief from a busy day while petting a dog.”

Like therapy dogs, all pets can provide comfort, joy, emotional support, and more. They do not judge and are quick to forgive. They are always happy to spend time with you, whether playing or simply sitting in the same room.

“Think about how your pets enrich your life through your relationship with them and the activities you do together,” Darling said. “We provide them with care and love, and they share their unconditional love with us to brighten our days.”

Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

VMTH Enjoys Holiday Stress Relief Activities

Puppy Therapy Tis the season to be jolly. But also, perhaps, a little bit stressed.

Between final examinations, gift buying, preparing for the holidays, travel, and other seasonal activities, there’s a lot going on for faculty, clinicians, staff, and students in the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospitals (VMTH).

To alleviate some of that stress, the VMTH sponsored a hospital-wide door decorating contest and, on Dec. 13, invited Aggieland Pets with a Purpose to offer some “puppy therapy.”

“It’s a busy time of year, with both our work and personal lives, so it was really nice to have something fun to do,” said Andrea Tyrrell, Large Animal Hospital (LAH) business associate who helped organize the day’s activities. “With everything going on, we’re trying to keep spirits high, enjoy the company, and find a fun way to celebrate. The VMTH does a lot to encourage holiday outreach and get people together”

The four Aggieland Pets with a Purpose therapy dogs and their humans visited the LAH administrative staff and stopped at several services in the Small Animal Hospital (SAH) for some petting and photos. They included longhaired Dachshund Daschle, owned by Kit Darling; Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Anna, owned by Joy Robinson; Goldendoodle Parker, owned by Krista Blight; and collie mix Raven, owned by Karen Snowden.

“Aggieland Pets with a Purpose provides a great service; the fact that they’re willing to volunteer to bring the pets and help build emotional support for our employees, I think, is really important,” Tyrrell said.

Aggieland Pets with a Purpose with their petsAggieland Pets with a Purpose, which has been serving Brazos Valley “with the unconditional love of our trained and evaluated pets,” routinely visits nursing facilities, St. Joseph Hospital, and area schools. More recently, they’ve visited Blinn College and at Texas A&M, Evans Library, the Medical Sciences Library, Zachry Engineering Education Complex, the School of Public Health, and graduate students with in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

“It is a busy time for us because we do a lot of stress relief activities,” Darling said. “It’s also a stress reliever for us; I can have a busy day at work and, while it takes some work getting our animals ready—they have to be bathed—when you see somebody smile because they’re enjoying our pets or you have someone in a nursing home or hospital who hasn’t really responded to people respond to dogs, it really makes your day.”

Other activities sponsored by the VMTH as part of their holiday outreach include a cookie contest, an annual holiday lunch, a wear your Christmas attire day, an ornament-decorating contest, and a cookie exchange.

June 3-9 is Pet Appreciation Week

Girl holding her petWhile every day with our pets may be special, we celebrate with extra love and attention to our pets during Pet Appreciation Week, June 3-9.

Kit Darling, the infection control coordinator at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said pets offer more than just companionship. “We should remember to recognize our pets everyday as they provide unconditional love and help us to alleviate stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depression,” Darling said.

“Pets help improve our mood. They have a non-judgmental nature, while encouraging playfulness, laughter, and increased energy levels. These activities are good for our health and well-being.”

All pets offer some sort of therapy, but some pets are specially trained to spread love throughout communities.

“In our local community, we have an animal-assisted therapy group called Aggieland Pets with a Purpose,” Darling said. “Our pets visit most of the nursing and assisted-living facilities, schools, and the juvenile detention center in our community. Some healthcare professionals even use our pets to help with physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Besides providing therapeutic relief, pets also teach us valuable life lessons—responsibility and patience.”

We can show affection to our pets by making sure that they have plenty of food, water, exercise, and veterinary visits. Additionally, training our pets to be well-behaved can require a lot of dedication.

“Pets are like a baby or a young child learning which behaviors are acceptable,” Darling said. “They will make mistakes, but consistency in training is important for them to become good pets.  The more time you spend teaching them appropriate behaviors, the better pet they will be. This is also a great way to bond with them.”

Caring for pets can also be self-fulfilling, as they can help us to feel needed and purposeful.

Above all, pets teach us how to love unconditionally.

“Pets are often more forgiving than we are,” Darling said. “They want us to love them. Our pets enjoy the present and do not worry about the past or the future; they remind us to take time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and not worry so much.”

With all of the “paws”itive benefits of having a pet, it’s easy to see why they have such a special role in our lives. For Pet Appreciation Week, be sure to give your pet some extra love.

Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Stories can be viewed on the web. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

A Perfect Companion for the Elderly

The power of pet therapy is thought to be stronger than any medication, not only for people going through tough times or in poor health, but also for the elderly as well. Proven to increase mental alertness, build self-esteem, and decrease loneliness, pets can provide a warm and fulfilling relationship that older people-or indeed all of us-desire.

“Pet ownership for older people can be very beneficial by giving them something to love and care for, as well as a companion in the home, especially if they live alone,” said Dr. Sonny Presnal, Director of the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). “I don’t believe there are any appreciable risks, providing that good decisions are made in the choice of a pet for older people.”

Having the responsibility of caring for a pet can be a healthy situation for most elderly people. Sometimes, a pet can be the only reason that he or she feels a need to get up in the morning; it provides them with a sense of purpose. “It gives older pet owners something to care for, which in the case of a dog may mean they are out taking the dog on a walk instead of sitting in the house,” said Presnal. In addition, there are many studies that attribute pet ownership to relieving stress, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and bettering mental health.

Not only do pets help the elderly overcome various health ailments, but also they can significantly decrease their owners’ sense of loneliness. As you probably already know, pets are automatic people magnets and are often a great conversation starter. People love talking about their pets, and others love interacting with the pets they encounter. This can often lead to new friendships and can provide beneficial social interactions that elderly people may not have otherwise had the chance to experience. This, in addition to simply having something to care for, significantly decreases loneliness and accompanying depression.

When choosing a pet, you must take into consideration the limitations of the elderly person’s physical and mental health. “A large, active dog may not be suitable for older people, due to the risk of injury to the owner from an accidental collision that may cause them to fall,” said Presnal. “Fractures from falls can be very dangerous for older people, especially hip fractures.”

A young puppy or kitten may not be a suitable choice either, due to their high maintenance requirements. An older dog or cat that has matured past their ball of energy phase can be a perfect companion. Not only does adopting an older pet benefit their owner, but may save the pet from euthanasia, as often people are (unfortunately) not interested in adopting older animals.

A concern that many elderly people considering pet ownership face is the possibility that they will no longer be able to care for their pet later on. This can happen if their health suddenly decreases, or if the animal becomes in need of extensive veterinary care. “There are many mobile veterinary services available for older persons who may not drive or who otherwise have problems transporting their pets for veterinary care,” said Presnal. There are also programs, such as the Stevenson Center, that provide for the physical, emotional, and medical needs of companion animals when their owners can no longer do so.

The Stevenson Center, which Presnal directs, is a unique program that has veterinary students who live at the center to provide companionship and care for the resident pets at night and on weekends and holidays. “As part of the CVM, the resident pets receive the ultimate in veterinary care at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital,” said Presnal. “We believe the level of care and companionship is unequaled by any other similar program.”

It is proven that animals can help enrich the lives of their owners both physically and emotionally, and this can be especially true for the elderly. The right pet can provide them with a sense of purpose, nonjudgmental acceptance, and companionship that both animals and humans need to stay happy and comfortable.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.