Therapy Pets

Those of us with pets will talk until the proverbial cows come home about how amazing they are. Animals have a unique ability to brighten our lives. They can cheer us up when we’re feeling down, entertain us with their antics and quirky ways, keep us company and get us up and active. Their loyalty, love and companionship help us in so many ways, with mental and physical health … so, what about if we shared those benefits with others in the community who need some support?

Well, therapy pets do just that! Volunteers with well-behaved, temperament-assessed pets can take their animals to care homes, hospices, hospitals, schools, prisons and other settings, through charities such as Pets as Therapy. In addition, these settings are increasingly either having their own pets, allowing staff to bring pets in to work, or enabling permanent residents to bring their pets to live with them (in certain care homes, for example). It’s becoming more and more widely recognised that the benefits of having pets in such environments vastly outweigh any potential difficulties.

Pets in care homes

In care homes, animals can act as companions, provide emotional support and a focus and talking point for residents. It’s been proven that stroking or interacting with animals has a positive effect on mental health, releasing ‘feel-good’ hormones like serotonin and oxytocin. Spending time with animals can aid relaxation, reduce stress and anxiety and, especially for dementia patients, reduce agitation.

Having a pet in the home encourages residents to come together, sharing stories and experiences about animals and reminiscing about former pets – this boosts social interaction and helps to combat loneliness and feelings of isolation.

The most common animals to visit care homes are cats and dogs – but other animals are also increasingly being taken in by charities and organisations as special visitors, such as horses, donkeys and alpacas. Residents can have an opportunity to interact with, stroke and groom these animals which provides a great physical and mental boost – it’s really valuable for people who’ve had a lot of involvement with animals throughout their lives. I hope that when I’m old and in a care home, I’ll have plenty of animal visitors to brighten my days! I can’t imagine what my life would be like without pets.

Some care homes welcome residents’ pets – although this varies from fish and caged birds through to dogs and cats. The Cinnamon Trust – a national charity for older people, the terminally ill and their pets, which has a network of over 20,000 volunteers who aim to provide peace of mind for owners, and love and care for their much-loved animal companions – has a list of pet friendly care homes in the UK, along with details of the extent of their pet-care and which animals they will accept. Alternatively, some care homes allow visits from family pets or from charities like Pets as Therapy or Therapy Dogs Nationwide.

 

Pets in hospitals and hospices

In hospitals and hospices, much of the focus (quite rightly) is on treatment and medical care – but sometimes patients just want an escape from that. While human visitors are, of course, very well received, sometimes a visit from an animal can be just as good, if not better! Animals don’t expect or demand conversation. They don’t ask how we are. Patients don’t feel the need to ‘put on a brave

face’ to save their feelings, or even get dressed or brush their hair in order to try and look their best for their visitors. There’s no pressure from a pet – they simply provide uncomplicated company and companionship.

It’s been shown that in hospitals, pets can reduce stress and ease anxiety in patients (especially children) in what can often be a very stressful situation. They can distract from medical procedures or illnesses, as well as encouraging movement and aiding recovery – a patient who’s nervous about attempting to walk after an illness, injury or operation will be more inclined to try if they can take a dog outside for a wander in the hospital grounds, for example. The distraction and comfort of a four-legged friend is welcome in many hospital situations, wherever health and hygiene procedures allow. Again, Pets as Therapy or Therapy Dogs Nationwide can arrange hospital visits or some hospitals and hospices allow family pets to visit by prior arrangement.

Pets in schools

As with residents in care homes and patients in hospitals, school children – in either mainstream or special educational needs (SEN) schools – can benefit from pet visits. Not all children have pets at home, so learning in school about caring for animals is really beneficial. The Blue Cross explains: “Research shows that pets can help to build children’s empathy, responsibility and life skills” and “having animals to care for ties in with the school curriculum of emotional and social needs – empathy, care, love, compassion, understanding, commitment and building confidence.”

While some schools choose to have their own pets (who remembers having a pet hamster at school when they were younger?), this isn’t without its complications as a member of staff will have to take responsibility for the pets outside of school hours and during school holidays, and let’s face it, teachers already have a lot on their plates caring for classes of 30+ kids all day! Also, there’s obviously a cost involved with pet care and many schools have tight budgets so it’s not always a long-term cost that they can commit to. Fish are a popular choice for school pets as they’re relatively easy to care for, with pupils sharing the responsibility for feeding and cleaning the tank.

Again, charities offer opportunities for pets to visit schools to give children the experience of being around animals and all the benefits that can bring. Dogs for Good have specially-trained community dogs that visit SEN schools and explain that some of the benefits of their visits include: “A greater enjoyment of being in the school environment, improved attendance and a greater willingness to learn and participate; improved behaviour, social interaction and sense of responsibility in the classroom; more effective therapy sessions – for example, we have seen students reaching their physiotherapy goals in a shorter space of time, or pupils achieving more complex goals when the school dog joins their sessions.” It’s amazing, really! Pets bring out the best in everyone, just by being there! Pets as Therapy has introduced a scheme called Read2Dogs which, as it sounds, provides dogs for school children to read to. Now, you may wonder how dogs could be qualified to listen to children read let alone aid and improve literacy, but it’s been shown that being at ease with a non-judgemental four-legged listener really encourages children to read! While they may be nervous or anxious about reading to a teacher, adult volunteer, or even another child, reluctant readers will look forward to their session with a pet and will happily read to them, and we all know that, with reading, practice helps children to improve. The best way to get better at reading is to read – whether that’s to a human or an animal! Obviously, the teacher will still be there to supervise the session and listen in, but the charity has found that dogs make really good reading companions and have helped a lot of children who struggle with confidence or attention span.

 

Pets in prisons Pets as Therapy is one charity that provides therapy dogs to prisons, visiting 24 establishments across the UK. They explain that “inmates who interact with a PAT dog feel less stressed. Therapeutic sessions can shift a person’s outlook and instil a sense of hope and incentive to live a crime-free life.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that pets hold the key to crime prevention and rehabilitation, but there certainly is evidence that they can play a part in making a difference. Animals can also provide a connection to the ‘outside world’ and help prisoners to explore, process and express their emotions. Again, their unconditional care, attention and total lack of judgement enables pets to provide a different level of support to that which humans can offer. They instil a sense of calmness in what can often be a highly emotionally-charged and volatile environment. In addition, the National College of Policing has successfully trialled a ‘Dog Training in Prison’ initiative, where offenders were used to deliver obedience training to dogs, either “for service purposes (for example, guide dogs or therapy dogs) or teach basic commands to shelter dogs to increase their chances of being adopted.” This programmed aimed (and successfully managed) to reduce aggression and reoffending rates, as well as reducing alcohol, drug use and offending while in prison by providing the offenders with a focus and sense of purpose. They also benefitted from the companionship of the animals and the sense of achievement that came from being able to train them.

How to volunteer

If you have a wonderful, amiable pet with a great temperament and feel you would like to share the benefits of your four-legged friend with others in our society who could use some support, then you can volunteer with a therapy pet organisation such as Pets as Therapy or Therapy Dogs Nationwide, amongst others. It’s evident that contact with animals can provide HUGE benefits to many, so if you have time and the right pet, you could do a really great thing by sharing their unique kind of love.