Pets give patients a paw up on recovery

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Imagine being laid up in a hospital and, as you’re wheeled down the sterile hallway, along strolls a three-foot-tall horse wearing yellow rubber booties and a backpack full of daisies. No, you’re not having a morphine-induced hallucination, you haven’t died and landed in some kind of surreal Barnum & Bailey heaven. You’ve just met Lucky Boy, one of the thousands of animals making the rounds at hospitals across the United States.

Fifteen years ago it used to be unusual to see a dog or cat in a hospital, but now even miniature horses like Lucky Boy are lumbering down the corridors. And as animal-assisted therapy continues to grow in popularity, a range of pets worthy of Noah’s Ark is turning up in medical centers – everything from pot-bellied pigs, pigmy goats and parrots, to pet chickens, giant rats and llamas.

'Animals motivate people'
The greater presence of animals in health-care settings comes amid increasing evidence that pets are good for us and can play a significant role in patients' recovery. Sometimes known as "pet therapy," animal-assisted therapy and activities have become an important tool for doctors and rehabilitation specialists.

"Animals motivate people to participate in their therapies, brighten patients' days, give them a chance to talk about the animals in their lives, and give them the opportunity to forget that they're in a hospital," says Dianne Bell, coordinator of the Delta Society Pet Partners program, which helps train and register animals and their owners for volunteer positions in health-care settings.

Currently there are more than 8,000 Delta Society Pet Partner teams in the United States and a handful of other countries, says Bell. Each makes an average of three visits per month and is likely to touch the lives of more than 540 people per year. And these figures don't include the hundreds of other volunteer teams registered through different programs.

Exercise and more
At the Alegent Health Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., Lucky Boy the miniature horse regularly visits with patients and contributes to the rehabilitation team's efforts. Originally started by Jena Munson, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at the hospital, the animal-assisted therapy program also incorporates dogs and cats.

Many of the patients that meet with the animals have had spinal-cord injuries, strokes or diseases of the central nervous system. By petting and grooming the pets, they get exercise, improve their fine-motor skills and are able to work on their balance, among other things.

"I look at this type of therapy as one of my tools in my arsenal to maximize a patient's recovery," says Dr. Thomas Franco, medical director at the hospital's Rehabilitation Center. "My goal is to keep the patients interested and stimulated and extending themselves."

The work the animals and their handlers do offers patients much more than an opportunity to move around and stretch their limbs. It can serve as an icebreaker — a chance to draw out people who are emotionally shut down or depressed — or a way to help improve their memory by memorizing the names of different parts of the animal. One patient, Munson recalls, refused to speak with any of the hospital staff members but would happily talk to Lucky Boy.

'A change of pace'
Sometimes just having an animal around opens up an avenue for communication and makes the often cold setting of a hospital seem more normal. For the many farmers and ranchers at the hospital in Omaha, a visiting horse like Lucky Boy — however small — offers an opportunity to reminisce and trade stories about their lives.

"Many people here in the Midwest have a true love for horses, and animals in general," says Munson. "It can do a lot for them emotionally."

The pets offer therapy not only for patients, but for their families, too. Russ Cech of Howells, Neb., visited with Lucky Boy during the horse's trip to the hospital on June 29. His 13-year-old daughter Jackie Cech suffered a spinal-cord injury in a car accident two months ago and is now undergoing rehabilitation after being paralyzed from the waist down. The Cech family has been at the hospital around the clock for weeks in the wake of the ordeal.

"(Seeing the horse) is a little something different," says Cech. "It's a surprise after sitting here for so long. A change of pace." And, he adds, it's good for his daughter, now confined to a wheelchair, to be able to interact with something at her eye level.

The right stuff
Not just any Fido or Fluffy can join the elite ranks of registered animals. Pets and their owners must go through a rigorous evaluation program. Julie Wood, Lucky Boy's owner and founder of Sunrise Equitherapy in Lincoln, Neb., spent weeks training her tiny horse before he could pass the Delta Society evaluation test.

First, he needed to learn to tolerate things like wheelchairs bumping into him, walkers and crutches crashing to the ground behind him, yelling, simultaneous petting by many people, and patients who try to cover his head with a blanket. He also had to get used to regular baths and wearing booties over his hooves, which help keep him from slipping on the hospital's linoleum floors.

Even animals that do pass muster are only registered to work in individualized situations and carefully assigned to locations where they're best suited, says Bell. A more introverted parrot that does better in one-on-one situations, would be placed differently than a gregarious pygmy goat, for instance.

As for Lucky Boy, "he likes a mob scene," says Wood. While the former show horse does fine with individual patients, he clearly prefers a crowd. "He gets into it — hook, line and sinker," she says.

And the crowds clearly love him. Already, patients visiting the hospital have begun calling to schedule their appointments for times when they'll be able to see him, says Munson.

Not for everyone
But, while there are many benefits, animal-assisted therapy is not for everyone. Some people don't like animals; others have allergies or other medical reasons why they can't be around them. In hospitals with visiting pets, patients are carefully screened ahead of time and no one is made to meet with an animal if they don't want to.

This kind of therapy can also be hard on the animals themselves. Just like any worker, they get stressed out if forced to work long hours or under difficult circumstances. According to Delta Society rules, animals must have regular breaks and no visit can last longer than two hours. Handlers are also required to be strong advocates for their pets — to know when a situation is not going well and recognize when an animal is not having a good day.

"Even though (Lucky Boy) loves it, it's stressful," says Wood. "He has a sense that he's doing something important. And he knows it."