By Staci Sproull

It is well-researched and widely-accepted that pet therapy is a beneficial experience for many patients and residents of institutionalized care facilities.  The premise is that pet therapy builds on the pre-existing human-animal bond.  Thanks to this natural relationship, pet therapy can aid progress toward goals in human physical, social, emotional, and cognitive function (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2013).  Patients in (and care facility residents exposed to) pet therapy may experience reduced cardiovascular reactions to stress.  This is attributed to a process called “contact comfort.”  In this process, the unconditional human-animal bond that forms through touch is thought to induce relaxation (Halm, 2008).  In further research, evidence of the (positive) physiological effects of pet therapy was found in a study of adult patients hospitalized with heart failure.  Researchers credited pet therapy with improving levels of cardiopulmonary function, neurohormone levels, and anxiety (Cole, et al., 2007).  Beyond the documented health benefits of pet therapy for patients and care facility residents, animals in the health care setting can also facilitate communication.  Their presence encourages interactions among patients, healthcare providers, staff, and visitors (AVMA, 2013).  It is with this evidence and understanding that Seattle Animal Shelter performs community service pet therapy visits for local residents-in-need.

Seattle Animal Shelter currently boasts seven established pet therapy visiting teams, each comprised of one owner/handler and one dog.  The ranks of dedicated teams are supplemented by part-time, trained and experienced teams that participate in the visitation program, schedules permitting.  Seattle Animal Shelter also recently welcomed several new volunteer teams with hopes of enhancing the existing, committed ranks.  The Pet Therapy team recently added a cat to our visiting animals. Every month the shelter’s therapy teams pay 1 to 2 hour visits to six local assisted living facilities and Virginia Mason Hospital, serving as many as 20 individuals (patients, their family members and staff) at any one location.  The number and frequency of visits conducted monthly by the original seven dedicated teams alone can result in as many as 900 therapeutic encounters per month. While the therapy program is emotionally taxing to the human part of the team, one team member recently noted, “If my pet and I can make even one patient smile, that otherwise would have had nothing to smile about that day, it makes it all worth it. Many times we have contact with patients that are non-verbal, yet, the way their eyes light up and the smiles on their faces, shows that they are enjoying their contact with the animal”.

The teams find that many times the workers (Doctors, Nurses and Aides) enjoy the stress relief and joy that comes from the contact with the pets, as much as the patients do. The pets seem to thrive on the love and attention that they receive while doing their “job”. This is a program that is an all-around wonderful program for everyone involved.

For more details on how to get involved with the therapy program, click here.