Pet therapy should be more than bonus treatment — it should be standard practice

We grew up in families that forbade animals from entering the household. Animals were seen as unclean and inconvenient nuisances — strictly for the outdoors. Besides, our families, who were from East Africa, had easy access to a diversity of true wildlife. No need to bring them inside.

It was therefore a complete surprise to them when we — grown up, married and now living in our own household — announced that we had adopted a blind, geriatric rescue dog named Freddy.

To say that Freddy has changed our lives would be an understatement. He has become an integral part of our family: an incredible companion whose friendship, presence and insatiable love of treats has brought an amazing amount of joy into our lives. Best of all, Freddy has now taken on a role designed to improve the quality of life of others as a certified therapy dog through the St. John Ambulance.

'Animal-assisted therapy'

Pet therapy, known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is a scheduled encounter with a certified team consisting of an animal and its handler. The goal is to support patients' social, emotional, physical and/or cognitive functioning.

The use of animals for therapeutic purposes was first formally described in a book entitled Notes on Nursing by Florence Nightingale, the larger-than-life founder of modern nursing, back in 1860. She recognized that animals had a positive impact on individuals with chronic diseases.

What Nightingale noticed over 150 years ago has been studied repeatedly by the medical community ever since. And research has indeed demonstrated that AAT can reduce anxiety and stress for individuals undergoing medical treatment, as well as decrease the prevalence of loneliness and depression among elderly, isolated and palliative patients.

Freddy — our blind, geriatric rescue — works as a certified therapy dog. (Supplied)

But despite the benefits of AAT, it is still underutilized in health care. Modern medicine is often hyper-focused on pharmacological and procedural interventions, to the extent that it sometimes undervalues the incredible usefulness of complementary areas such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy and psychology. In Ontario, these systems often fall outside the purview of universal health care, despite evidence that public funding for many of these services would reduce overall health care costs downstream.

Pet therapy is one of those complementary approaches that should absolutely become integrated in standard practice, especially in areas of health care that include nursing homes, continuing care facilities and rehabilitation units. 

Granted, there are obvious logistical and practical challenges. Therapy pets need to be trained through specific programs, which limits their supply and availability. What's more, not everyone has the time and money (handlers have to do vulnerable sector screening and TB skin testing, which come with costs) to complete necessary training programs. And even if handlers do have that time and money, not every pet has the disposition to pass.

Infection risks

Animals are also sources of zoonotic pathogens, with the potential to introduce unnecessary infection risk in health care settings. Other considerations include the fact that some patients will have allergies, or have bad past experiences, or are uncomfortable with animals. In those cases, the presence of therapy animals will elevate stress, rather than reduce it.

Funding is another issue. With our system bursting at the seams, it is hard to make the case for AAT to be a top priority when issues such as doctor shortages, wait times and changing pharmacare coverage seem much more important.

But these concerns can be addressed. There are already protocols in place from the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America to reduce the infection risk from AAT. Patients are also already organized by unit based on the severity and type of illness, in addition to susceptibility to infection, meaning AAT would only be integrated in areas where individuals are low risk.

In terms of funding priorities: the federal government has, for years, recognized that these types of alternative therapies are integral to various types of rehabilitation, and it has supported initiatives such as funding an AAT program for youth in custody who have experienced trauma. This recognition should be adopted at the provincial level, also. 

AAT can reduce anxiety and stress for individuals undergoing medical treatment, as well as decrease the prevalence of loneliness and depression among elderly, isolated and palliative patients. (Supplied/Vancouver Airport Authority)

The improvement of an individual's quality of life is a foundational principle in health care, and pet therapy has the potential to play a major role here. Re-organizing health care spaces with an eye on design, functionality and improved patient experience will come to define medicine in the decades ahead.

Ultimately, we need people's health — mental, physical and emotional — at the centre of their health care, and pet therapy would serve that important goal incredibly well. Supporting organizations like the St. John Ambulance and working to create and nurture expanding networks of AAT should therefore be part of the long-term vision of patient-centred care.

Until the rest of us can make that happen, Freddy will continue to do his part. 

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