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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

 

Fido to the Rescue

Alternative treatment for the side effects of hepatitis and interferon therapy has just gone to the dogs ... and cats.

By: Andrea Palmeiro

When you think about animals assisting the disabled, you probably picture guide dogs leading the blind or maybe a monkey that works as the hands of a quadriplegic. But not all disabled people suffer from a physical affliction; some suffer depression as a result of a chronic illness or some harsh medical treatment. Fortunately, one treatment for depression is only a Milk Bonz away.

While you may not be convinced that litter boxes or chew toys should become permanent fixtures in your home, you should consider the therapeutic advantages of owning a pet. Numerous studies have found persons dealing with depression to be more optimistic and develop a positive outlook when they interact with pets.

All You Need Is Love

According to the Delta Society, a Seattle-based organization that provides training in animal-assisted therapy to volunteers and healthcare professionals, people who have AIDS and own pets have less depression and reduced stress. Pets are a major source of support and increase a person’s perception and the ability to cope.

“We have seen so many patients respond to the touch of an animal,” said Jan Schmidt, owner of Paws for Friendship, Inc. I remember so many times where the staff at hospitals said (a patient had) never moved a hand before, or it has been weeks since a patient said a word, and here that patient is, talking to an animal.”

Schmidt said her Omaha, Neb., company brings together volunteers to take pets into hospitals, nursing homes and other venues where people need a psychological lift. She said she knew right away the value of animals in people’s lives.

 

“From the very beginning, we worked with anyone — disabled, lonely, and sick and injured people,” she said. “An animal can reach into someone’s soul, and they do so with no care of illness or disability. They offer unconditional love, pure and simple.” But, Schmidt said, when an animal enters a hospital or nursing home, it is the warm touch of a furry friend as much as the attitude of devotion to which patients respond.

Nancy Walton, volunteer coordinator with Utah Animal Assisted Therapy Association/People and Animals Working to Serve in Salt Lake City, Utah, agrees. “(Animals) are pleasing to the touch,” she said. “They take patients’ minds off their pain. They offer unconditional love.” Walton said various studies have shown that therapy animals measurably lower a person’s blood pressure and anxiety levels.

“I’ve seen patients with one visit with a dog or a cat come out and start visiting with people,” Walton said. “It’s amazing that animals bring the patients out of their problems so often.”

A study from the Delta Society Web site performed at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that HIV-infected men with pets suffered far less from depression than did men who did not own pets. The study suggested that by enhancing the companionship available to patients with HIV, pets provided a buffer against the stressful impact of HIV and AIDS.

Fear, loneliness, despair and isolation are just a few of the negative feelings that can be treated by the power of touch — humans touching animals — according to a 1996 study by Purdue University professors Alan M. Beck and Dr. Aaron Katcher.

A Touching Beginning

According to Starlife Services, a caregiver consulting firm, pet therapy was recognized in 1964 from observations made by Boris Levinson, a child psychiatrist. Levinson introduced his dog into sessions he conducted with severely withdrawn children and watched how the children’s defenses were broken down by simply interacting with the animal. From that point in the sessions, Levinson could begin therapy with his patients.

The first pet-facilitated therapy program opened in 1977 at a psychiatric unit at Ohio State University. Sam and Elizabeth Corson developed the program by basing their work on Levinson’s. The patients were allowed to play with the dog of their choice at certain times of the day. What came out of the study was a group of patients with marked improvement in self-esteem, quality of life, morale and communication, Starlife Services states.

Again and again, in studies that span the globe, the use of animals in different forms of therapy is shown to help people who are in a state of depression or are anti-social, those with long-term, potentially fatal illnesses, and even in the rehabilitation of prisoners. As Beck has said, “Touch is healing, and there is no taboo against touching an animal.” In that sense, the animal is vital in “healing” illnesses and side effects by simply being there with you.

 

Taking Care of Business

Of course animals do require quite a bit of care — from changing Fluffy’s litter box to taking Spot for his daily stroll — and many hepatitis patients  may not feel they are ready for the responsibility of a pet when their medical treatment makes them feel they cannot properly take care of themselves.

Walton, who has five dogs, says that while anyone who can handle a pet should consider bringing home a bundle of fur, patients who are having trouble coping with their own lives should consider the consequences of adding an animal to their household.

But Schmidt said that in addition to the benefit patients get from an animal’s affection, she has seen people with depression benefit from having a ball of fur that depends on them for survival.

“I know a few friends who have completely resolved matters of depression by giving their pets such love and caring,” she said. “It gets their minds off their problems by knowing, ‘This animal needs me, and I must take care of it.’”

Old Dog, New Tricks

Perhaps one possibility for hepatitis patients looking for animal companionship, but needing to keep the demands of care to a minimum, would be to find a mature pet. Older animals provide all the benefits of love and care that younger animals would provide — and a few more benefits, too.

“Some of the dogs we see,” said Walton, a Delta-certified trainer, “if they are still playful like a puppy, still hyper, those dogs may not be suitable as therapy animals. We look for dogs that are predictable.” Of her five dogs, she said, only two are therapy animals.

Finally, by adopting an older animal, you will know that you may be saving the life of an animal that might not otherwise survive in this world. Check with your local Humane Society or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chapters and ask what you need to do to adopt a pet.

Support From Animal Experts

You can also organize visitations to occur at support group meetings by contacting local individuals or groups associated with pet visitation programs. That way, you can give and receive all the love and attention you can handle without the added bonus of changing the litter box every week.

Organizations such as The Delta Society, with their Pet Partners program, find ways to integrate pet owners with people who need pet visitation as a form of therapy. These volunteers undergo extensive training, testing, and are awarded certification when they are ready to go out into the field and share their pets with others. The Delta Society touts 4,000 current Pet Partners volunteer teams in the United States alone.

“Animals love to have a job,” Walton said, noting that many dog breeds got their unique characteristics because of the job they were bred to perform in past centuries. “Animals are extremely loyal to us. They trust humans and are willing to give us everything they’ve got.”

What’s the best reason of all to include a pet in your life?  It might be that you don’t have to get prior approval from your health insurance company, or it might be that the companionship an animal will offer is unconditional, fiercely loyal, and will always be there for you in all your times of need.

Learning More About Pet Benefits

For more information about pet therapy programs in your area, visit www.activitytherapy.com for a listing of local and international organizations.

Please contact your local animal shelter or Humane Society for information about adopting a pet.

Pets and Health: The Numbers Behind The Warm Fuzzies

According to information on The Delta Society’s Web site, owning a pet is not just a benefit based on love. Pet owners derive a variety of health benefits, many of which are medically quantifiable:

  • Pet owners have lower blood pressure than people who don’t own pets.
  • Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than people who don’t own pets.
  • Medication costs dropped from an average of $3.80 per patient per day to just $1.18 per patient per day in new nursing home facilities in New York, Missouri and Texas that have animals and plants as an integral part of the environment.
  • Seniors who own dogs go to the doctor less than those who do not. In a study of 100 Medicare patients, even the most highly stressed dog owners in the study have 21 percent fewer physicians’ contacts than non-dog owners.
  • People who have AIDS that have pets have less depression and reduced stress.