Leon, an 8-year-old black lab is retiring after 7 years of hospice service. He is retiring at the recommended age for his breed, says Alison Wagner, director of volunteer services for Hospice of Michigan and Arbor Hospice. Arbor Hospice of Ann Arbor, Michigan, adopted Leon in 2013 for patient visitations at retirement communities, assisted living facilities, end-of-life care centers, and homes throughout Washtenaw County and lived with a staff member.
Wagner said therapeutic time with an animal can help fill a void for patients missing a companion. “One of the reasons why we think this is so important is because we see that some people as they’re coming into hospice, or just as their life is changing, as their disease progresses, they’re having to give up their pets,” Wagner said.
Simply cuddling or petting an animal can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and ease depression. Because a primary goal of hospice services is comfort care, Pet Therapy, also referred to as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is an ideal option for providing comfort to patients who often feel isolated. During visits to the hospice patients, pet therapy is a guided interaction between the patient and a trained animal. It also involves the animal’s handler. Animals interact with hospice patients during individualized visits per the patient’s comfort level.
The physical benefits of hospice pet therapy are worthy of attention. It’s well-known and scientifically proven that interaction with a gentle, friendly pet can:
- lower blood pressure,
- improve cardiovascular health,
- release endorphins (oxytocin) that have a calming effect,
- diminish overall physical pain, and
- produce an automatic relaxation response during the act of petting, reducing the amount of medication some patients need.
The social and emotional benefits of hospice pet therapy can:
- lift spirits and reduce depression,
- decrease feelings of isolation and alienation,
- encourage communication,
- provide comfort,
- increase socialization,
- reduce boredom,
- lower anxiety, and
- reduce loneliness.
Alana Knoppow, volunteer program manager at Arbor Hospice, said Leon’s support was significant for many patients, especially those who had trouble expressing their feelings to others. “He would just sort of cuddle up to them, give them a chance to pet him,” Knoppow said. “Some patients might even talk to him. Sometimes we’ve had patients who really don’t speak to any other people, but will open up and speak to a pet.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, pet therapy can help people reach specific goals in their treatment. For example, patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease can benefit from the socialization and activity associated with animal visits. Visitation between patients and animals promotes activity, conversation, and emotional connection. Often, simply the presence of the animal is all that is required to promote the positive effects.
Some patients may have allergic reactions to certain animal species, however, pet therapy allows for all patients, regardless of allergies or other restrictions, to enjoy the company and affection of compassionate animals. While dogs comprise the majority of the animals in pet therapy programs, there is a wide array of species employed in providing comfort and companionship to hospice patients.
- Dogs—By far the most popular choice for pet therapy, dogs are universally enjoyed by hospice patients for their loving, compassionate presence and ability to read subtle emotional and physical cues from humans.
- Pigs—An alternative to those allergic to dogs or cats, pigs are a calm, affectionate, and intelligent animal companion. Pigs also are a viable alternative for patients who have had frightening past experiences with cats or dogs.
- Rabbits—For patients who may be allergic to cats or dogs and desire a small, fluffy animal in their lap, rabbits are a perfect choice. Pet therapy rabbits provide patients with a calm, silent, and adorable companion.
- Cats—Cats can provide a quiet, loving presence and promote a profound emotional connection with patients. Cats are among the most requested pet therapy species, ranking second only to dogs.
- Horses—A very popular option for hospice organizations involved with pet therapy, horses, particularly miniature horses, are ideal for providing patients with a kind, calm, and quiet companion that facilitates communication and bonding.
- Birds—Birds can be a fun and uniquely entertaining animal companion. While often requiring a great deal of training before being ready to serve, the cheerful and bright disposition of birds can bring laughter and enjoyment to patients, caregivers, and families.
Hospice pet therapy programs also have a significant impact on the overall range of motion and bodily strength of patients. Active movement can often be neglected, especially in older patients, and so pet therapy visits promote motion and activity as hospice patients play, cuddle, pet, and interact with their animal companion.
“They seem to have the sixth sense about knowing what a person needs,” Knoppow said. “It really does reach a place in a patient’s heart that I think people can’t reach in the same way.”