About Pet Therapy
A hand reaches out, a wagging tail approaches, and an elderly face breaks into a smile. It's a scene that's increasingly common in the Helena Valley, thanks to volunteers from the Helena Chapter of Intermountain Therapy Animals. Activity directors and health care professionals report that visiting pets reach nursing home residents, hospital patients, retirement home residents and adult day care participants in ways that other therapeutic activities can't.
The contact may be brief, but it brightens the entire day or week, especially for those who have had pets in the past. In some cases, an animal's visit is transforming. Shy, withdrawn, or depressed people find themselves in animated conversation, angry people relax, and those with memory lapses share detailed recollections of pets they lived with years before. Visiting pets have reached autistic children, stroke victims, Alzheimer's patients, and other "unreachables." Even when nothing dramatic happens, pet visits are important changes of pace for facility residents, bringing excitement, affection, comfort, physical contact and joy.
In addition, to providing companionship (called Animal Assisted Activity), visiting pets sometimes participate in a facility's therapy program. In Animal Assisted Therapy, a dog might stand while a patient brushes him order to exercise specific arm muscles, or a cat might visit a depressed patient to encourage conversation, or someone in speech therapy might give commands to a dog that does tricks or retrieves objects. Anyone who loves animals is likely to work harder and feel more motivated when one is part of the therapy team.