Many recognize that the idea of taking senior dogs to visit dementia care facilities is... cute. Fewer recognize pet therapy as a proven effective medical intervention with well documented mental and physical benefits.
Studies conducted this year show that even medical professionals grossly underestimate its extraordinary potential. As the medical community begins to fully appreciate the value pet therapy offers, as a community, we will have to begin to figure out how to provide these services to the many who could benefit from it.
A study published early in 2016, in the journal BMC Psychiatry, concluded that, "...pets should be considered a main, rather than a marginal source of support, in the management of long-term mental health problems." The goal of the research was to explore the role of pets in supporting people with long-term mental illness, like dementia. Researchers found patients relied on pets for support, relationship needs, and motivation. Despite these findings, most of the long-term care facilities I have visited do not have pet therapy on-site, and they are happy to go without it unless volunteers from the community provide the service. Residents are even discouraged from keeping their own pets because the facilities are not structured to assist with pet care.
Another study conducted at John Hunter Hospital in Australia was investigating the benefits of pet therapy for those recovering from illness. It found that visits with therapy dogs, "sharply boosted [patient's] spirits and led to an unprecedented reduction in recovery times." The study, conducted in conjunction with Delta Therapy Dogs, saw up to a 30% reduction in recovery times.
Do not read this article about the study unless you are prepared to shed a small tear, as the patients in this study were children. Voluntary regional coordinator of the program, Pam Withers recalled one case where, "The very first day that we walked in, the mother [of the patient] couldn't believe it — [her daughter] actually spoke and had a smile on her face. She wasn't speaking, wasn't doing anything beforehand, she was just lying there. From that first visit, the girl just accelerated in her recovery."
Based on these and many other studies which reached similar conclusions, as patient advocates, we should be demanding that pet therapy play a central role in the overall care plan for patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and mental health facilities. The care providers themselves should also begin to look for ways to implement more in-depth programs as a way of saving resources. There is just one obstacle we will need to address, supply and demand. I cannot imagine the number of dogs that would be required to provide these services to all those in need just in the Reno, NV area alone. The number would be in the hundreds not to mention that we would need to train human handlers as well.
We are building our pet therapy program in hopes of beginning to address this critical need in our community. Pet therapy is a proven medical intervention and the sooner we adopt it as a standard practice, the quicker we will see cost savings from improved hospital recovery times and a reduction in unnecessary anguish of those suffering from long-term mental health diseases. The fact that we are going to fill this need with senior dogs, well that is just...cute.