Northside SF  

The healing power of pets
By Cindy Beckman

   When Paco enters the room, heads turn in studied appreciation. It is hard to miss a 22-pound orange tabby cat, but it is the fact that he has come to visit hospice care patients that garners such admiration.

   Paco and his loving guardian, Susan Ford, are long-time volunteers with The SF/SPCA’s Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Program. Paco is one of only three cats in the program, but he joins two guinea pigs, one rabbit, and a moluccan cockatoo to round out the predominantly dog-oriented roster of volunteers.

   In 1981, The SF/SPCA was the first animal welfare organization in the country to start an AAT program. Today, 110 therapy teams visit over 80 healthcare facilities citywide to offer the healing presence of animals. Program facilities include hospital and psychiatric wards, hospices, physical rehabilitation centers, retirement communities, convalescent homes, and assisted living facilities. Shelters around the country have modeled their AAT programs on The SF/SPCA’s success.

   Animal-assisted therapy brings animals into institutional settings to provide comfort and therapeutic benefits to people isolated by physical and emotional barriers.
   Numerous published studies have shown the physical benefits of animal-human interaction: blood pressure drops in cardiac patients, and some post-operative patients need fewer painkillers. Mental benefits are just as noticeable: pets provide a sense of well being that is demonstrated by a decrease in patient anxiety and depression, and caretakers notice increased interaction between patients and staff after AAT visits.
   Ford explains, “The time we spend with the patient is as important as the animal itself. When I have Paco with me, we’re talking about their animals, their own life, so it’s very reassuring to them.”

   A second focus of The SF/SPCA’s program is animal-assisted education (AAE). The Puppy Dog Tales reading program sends pet teams to eight City libraries and schools to promote literacy and the love of reading. Students have the opportunity to read to a therapy dog that listens nonjudgmentally and praises the child with an enthusiastic tail wag. An ongoing study at E.R. Taylor Elementary School is documenting the measurable effects of the Puppy Dog Tales program on reading performance.
   Jennifer Emmert, The SF/SPCA’s Animal Assisted Therapy Program manager, outlined the process volunteers follow to join the program. Pet-handler teams attend a 1-1/2 hour orientation during which the major basics of the program are covered, and evaluators make sure that the applicant’s motives for participating are pure and that the temperament of the animal is correct. Volunteer’s own social skills are critical, as they will be making the initial contact with the patient. Pets also need a health certificate from their veterinarian, as many visit autoimmune-compromised patients.
   The training continues with a four-week class that teaches the core skills of therapy visits and introduces typical medical equipment to the teams. Each team goes on a group therapy visit, and then shadows an experienced volunteer before making their first solo visit.
   Animals need to be comfortable in any situation, but pets’ temperaments frequently change as they age. Animals get a follow up personality test at least every three years to make sure they are still suitable for the program.
   Susan Ford notes that Paco is 8-years-old now, and getting a little more sensitive to noise and busy situations. He has also gotten so big that he doesn’t fit in many laps comfortably anymore, so she considers him semi-retired.
   “There is a large demand for smaller dogs, as lots of facilities work with larger Asian populations – and most prefer smaller pets. Larger dogs are usually involved in the reading programs,” explains Emmert.
   Susan Alexander and her 6-year-old Pekingese, Chelsea, have been participating in the AAT program for about a year and a half. Pediatric visits are their specialty. As a smaller dog, Chelsea can get on a bed with a younger patient or sit in their lap in a wheelchair. She has a knack of naturally adjusting to the patient’s activity level; she is more animated or still according to the patient’s abilities, with little direction from Alexander.

   The visits can be exhausting for both the pet and the handler. Chelsea can visit for about 1-1/2 hours before she is obviously exhausted. “I usually have to carry her back to the car,” says Alexander, who is usually just as tired. The pediatric visits can take a toll on her mentally, but she feels the rewards are worth the wear.
   “There was a young boy in the intensive care unit at UCSF, who hadn’t been feeling well enough for visitors. But when asked if we could come in for a visit, he sat up for the first time in four days. You realize how valuable your visits are, no matter how difficult, when you have those experiences.”
   Emmert has never heard of any facility staff impeding an animal team’s visit, but the program works hard to match facility requests for the size of the animals and frequency of visits. With over 40,000 AAT visits made each year, Emmert notes, “It’s the amazing volunteers who make it all work.”
   For more information on this wonderful SF/SPCA program, visit Next month, we will go behind the scenes at The Heritage retirement community for a most unusual animal-assisted therapy visit – “When a camel comes calling.”

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