The power of pets: Pet therapy

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An Encompass Health patient petting a miniature therapy horse.
An Encompass Health patient petting a miniature therapy horse.

Pet therapy is gaining popularity in many Encompass Health hospitals. While the verdict is still out on what role animals may play in healing, the smile on patients’ faces are proof enough of the power of pets.

When Pippin prances into a hospital, patients break out into big smiles. As Bandit lounges in the hallway, those who are down and depressed perk up, and if Ember is part of a therapy session, patients are eager to make that extra effort just to spend a little more time with her.

These are all pets that frequently roam some of Encompass Health’s hospitals.

The presence of pets – be it for an emotional lift or actual therapy assistance – is becoming increasingly popular in the healthcare industry. While research is somewhat unclear on how effective our four-legged friends are in healing, the animal-human bond clearly has its benefits.

According to Pet Partners, a leader in pet therapy certification programs, research has shown that it may help with pain management, positive social behaviors, walking and more.

But perhaps the best proof is to step inside an Encompass Health hospital and see the reaction patients have when the four-legged therapists enter the room.

“It’s just that unconditional love that they bring,” said Christine DeNiro, senior marketing liaison at Encompass Health’s MidAmerica Rehabilitation Hospital, which invites Pippin, a miniature therapy horse, and therapy dogs to visit patients. “They may be lonely or depressed or just trying to process this new situation, and in walks Pippin or one of the dogs. You can’t help but smile.”

Therapy animals aren’t just your average household pets. They are trained and certified, as are their handlers, and there are a variety of types of therapy pets, as well as certification programs. Some focus on the emotional side, while others are goal-oriented.

Whatever the case may be, the furry friends are bringing smiles and benefiting patients in a variety of ways.

Opening up with animals

Bandit is first and foremost Kelly Moffatt’s service dog. Kelly uses a wheelchair and relies on the black lab to help her pick up items. However, it became clear to her one day at work that Bandit could help others, as well. Kelly is a psycho-social counselor at The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis. One day when returning to her office, she noticed a patient talking quietly to her Bandit.

“I’d been working with this patient for quite some time, trying to get him to open up,” she recalled. “Bandit was just curled up with him, and this patient was telling his whole story. I realized then that Bandit could do something in 10 minutes that I had been trying to do for a whole week.”

Kelly had Bandit certified as a therapy dog, and now he visits with patients almost daily. Aldeena Ruch, too, knows all too well how pets can help patients. When her mother was in a nursing home, she would bring her vizsla puppy to visit. There, Dough Boy became accustomed to being around wheelchairs, and seeing how happy the puppy made her mother, Aldeena had Dough Boy certified as a therapy dog. She and her husband would take him to area hospitals in their hometown, including Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Reading in Pennsylvania.

She knew patients appreciated their visits, but it wasn’t until she was hospitalized that Aldeena truly experienced the benefits of pet therapy. Aldeena was diagnosed with the rare Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which left her temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. She was hospitalized first in acute care, and then transferred to Encompass Health Reading. Pet therapy, she said, was crucial to her recovery.

“I always came here (to Encompass Health) the first Monday of each month with our dog,” she said days before her discharge. “Now I’m the one who gets pet therapy. I never thought that would happen.”

Her condition has only verified the benefits of pets, she said. When she was down and depressed at her acute care hospital, Aldeena’s doctor prescribed none other than Dough Boy, and it worked.

“When I was very sick and on a ventilator, and the doctors really weren’t sure I was going to make it, one told me I had a choice to fight,” she said. “He asked what makes me happy, and we said dogs. He told us to get as many dogs as possible in the room at all times.”

Aldeena is now at home, and awaiting the day she’ll be able to take Dough Boy back to an Encompass Health hospital, so he can help others as he helped her.

Having Dough Boy around added a sense of normalcy to Aldeena’s situation, which is yet another reason pets are so beneficial, Christine said.

Animals can evoke memories and bring a sense of security and normalcy to an often scary and uncertain time.

Christine recalled a time one patient reminisced about his childhood on a farm when Pippin trotted into the room. Others recalled their own family pets from the past when snuggling up to one of the therapy pups.

It’s not just an emotional impact pets have, though, Christine is quick to point out. Brushing and stroking the animals can help with upper extremity weaknesses, and walking with the pets get patients up and moving.

These are just a few of the ways animals can aid in rehabilitation, but some go even further and help patients reach their goals.

Lending a helping paw

Ember the Therapy Dog

A sign on an office door at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas, indicates when Ember is in, because when Ember, a 4-year-old golden retriever, is at the hospital, she’s working.

Ember is an animal-assisted therapy dog, which is different than a therapy pet.

“Animal-assisted therapy is a goal driven, non-volunteer service,” said Cody Newton, Ember’s handler and a senior occupational therapist at the hospital. “As a therapist, I’m using Ember as an active part of treatment. For example, if we need to work on balance, we can use tug of war with Ember to work on that balance.”

Animal-assisted therapy certification is a more detailed process than that for pet therapy, and all interactions pets and their handlers have with patients must be goal-oriented.

Encompass Health Fayetteville doesn’t allow pet therapy, but Ember, she’s a part of the hospital’s staff.

Cody typically brings her to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Patients sign up for sessions with Ember, and her schedule fills up fast.

Before the therapy team meets with a patient, Cody assesses them to see how Ember can best help the patients reach their goals.

“We can work on anything we need to in a therapy session,” Cody said. “We can play fetch. If they need strengthening of the arm we can add a weight and work on that. They can walk and feed Ember, or if it’s someone who had a severe stroke, and they can’t move around a lot and need work on balance, they can bend and pet her. There’s so many different things.”

Perhaps the best part of the animal-assisted therapy is the non-judgmental persistence only a pet can provide.

Cody said patients often comment on how therapy with Ember doesn’t seem like work. “It takes them to another place, a good place or their childhood, to a time they had dogs,” he said. “It shifts the paradigm. It’s more interactive play, but it’s accomplishing the same thing.”

An all-around pick-me-up

Patients aren’t the only ones who light up when animals enter the building. Staff is often equally uplifted. Just ask those at MidAmerica.

During National Rehabilitation Week, the hospital hosted a petting zoo. Staff and patients alike came out in full force to snuggle up with the cuddly creatures, which included goats, bunnies, a miniature donkey and more.

“It was such an amazing day,” Christine said of the event. “What an incredible experience for our staff and employees. The farm animals had everyone smiling and feeling so appreciated. Patients shared a lot of memories and a lot of laughter.  It was so sweet to see older folks holding the bunnies, silky chicks and the goats.”

Christine’s favorite from the petting zoo – Eva, a 4-week-old pot-bellied pig. You can’t help but smile at the thought of her.

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