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Cold nose, warm heart: pet therapy in hospice care

Pet therapy can be wonderful in hospice.

By Valerie Hartman

Nan volunteered for our hospice program with her service dog, Jillian. One day Nan shared a story with me: “Jillian and I were visiting a woman weekly who resided in a skilled nursing facility.  She was blind and hard of hearing.  She seemed anxious when anyone entered her room. Every visit I patiently tried to communicate with her. Then I would take her hand and place it on Jillian’s head, she would calm down and smile – almost to laughter – and say, ‘my friend, my friend!’”

Nan went on, “She was dying, and her daughter was at the bedside, concerned.  With permission Jillian gently stepped up onto the bed and settled alongside her friend, they both were quiet.” Everyone got a little tearful.

I love to share this story. Pets elicit emotional responses. Lisa Browder*, Complementary Therapies Manager at Nathan Adelson Hospice in Las Vegas, NV, has one of the largest pet therapy programs in the country, and uses 32 teams of therapy dogs on a regular basis.  Lisa gave a telechat presentation in 2009 entitled, “Cold Nose, Warm Heart”.  She mentioned a patient study showing that pet therapy helps patients sleep better, lowering heart and breathing rates and blood pressure.  Lisa says, “Pet therapy provides an opportunity for a patient to experience unconditional acceptance and love from the animal, dignity concerns aside.”

Dogs and cats are most commonly used in pet therapy programs. Other animals, such as horses, can assist in therapy, too.  The therapeutic benefit lies in the bond, the relationship.  Studies show that having a bond to a favorite pet at home increases the hormone oxytocin in the human brain. Oxytocin is the chemical hormone released in parent-child bonding and it counteracts the hormone release of chemicals involved in stress.  Oxytocin released directly in the brain through a ‘relationship’ brings someone a sense of peace, safety, and love. In the home, it is common to see pets providing comfort instinctually, often becoming more affectionate, quiet, solemn and sometimes protective during hospice days.

If your hospice program has access to Pet Therapy and you receive a visit, expect that the therapist has gone through handler training and has learned how to work in the hospice setting.  Certified animals also are required to go through temper testing.

For more information on Pet Therapy you can begin your search with these three National Certification websites:

Delta Society: The Human – Animal Health Connection

Therapy Dogs International

Therapy Dogs, Inc. 

*Lisa is well known in the hospice community. She sits on the NHPCO NCHPP Allied Therapy section steering committee representing Pet Therapy.

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