The unexpected benefits of pet therapy


Any child who has ever fallen and skinned a knee can describe the healing balm of an animal’s unconditional love. But while therapy animals offer that succor, they can do a lot more as well.

While therapy animals work in a lot of different settings from elementary schools and libraries (reading to therapy dogs helps improve children’s literacy skills) to nursing homes and hospice, in a hospital setting, therapy animals typically engage in two distinct services.

Animal-assisted activities are the casual “meet and greet” visits in which pets and their handlers visit with patients. The visits are generally filled with spirit-lifting pets and snuggles, but the impact can be profound. Glenna Mockbee, founder and executive director of Therapy Pets of Greater Cincinnati recalls an instance when a patient’s daughters begged her to bring her lab, Gabe, in to visit with their mother who was in a coma and unresponsive. Gabe nuzzled the woman’s hand, but got no response. The woman’s family and nurse encouraged Mockbee to let Gabe climb up on the bed, which she did. Gabe crawled up and, at Mockbee’s command began gently licking her face. Within minutes, the woman reached over to stroke the dog and soon after, opened her eyes and smiled.

Animal-assisted therapy is more goal-directed: Healthcare providers integrate animals into the treatment process to help patients achieve certain objectives. Physical and occupational therapists have worked with Mockbee and her dogs to help stroke victims regain motor skills by practicing brushing a dog and have used dog walking as a motivator to get young burn victims to walk.

“They need to walk, but they don’t want to because it is so painful,” Mockbee says. “But if we put a second leash on the dog and ask, ‘Will you help me take him for a walk?’ Their eyes light up.”

But it’s not just the patients who benefit, says Jenelen Dulemba, director of volunteer and older adult membership services at St. Elizabeth Healthcare. “A visit by a pet can not only make a difference for a patient but for the family, visitors and staff. It’s such a stress-relieving, joyful experience. The pets bring a sense of joy and normalcy to an environment that is not normal.”