'Pet' projects: animal-assisted therapy

July 1, 2008

Animal-assisted therapy can help a child go through a potentially traumatic trip to the hospital.

AAA could be described as nothing more than playing with a dog. It's just for having fun, petting, and viewing animals, as in petting zoos. AAT, on the other hand, has defined goals similar to a session of physical therapy. Therapists measure progress with each session, and patients strive to attain their set goals. Children with autistic-spectrum disorders can sometimes find improved outcomes with the aid of animals: better interaction skills, more self-esteem, and less anxiety. Creatures as varied as rabbits and even elephants have been used for AAT. Dogs, however, are the AAT mainstays.

The animals don't even have to be real to help. Randy Lange, DVM, realized that some kids undergoing hospital stays are relatively alone for their ordeal. If their parent has to work, admitted children may have to handle the scary surgery all by themselves.

Children learn what they'll go through, whether it's a common tonsillectomy or something more serious. Ideally, they receive a preadmission tour of the hospital, complete with watching the stuffed animal go through the same steps they soon will. They take the dog with them to admission, and when they awake from the surgery, the dog is waiting for them in their recovery bed.

The real Josh volunteers with the Children's Miracle Network, logging a few flights a year to meet with kids undergoing hospital stays for life-threatening conditions. "I hate to say it, but I think these kids can teach adults how to deal with adversity," Lange said.

The veterinarian hesitated to compare children to animals, "because they're not," although animals can teach us a lot, too. "Basically, animals just want to get healthy," but they don't get stressed or worried about illness the way people do. However, noted Lange, both animals and children can feel abandonment issues when brought in for a stay in a hospital, which can be a strange, sterile place.

Stuffed animals may be the only way to go for many health care facilities, unfortunately. "A lot of hospitals don't even have pet therapy programs," Dr. Lange said. "That's a problem."

Simply having a friendly dog or cat isn't enough. Proper AAA and/or AAT-trained animals have learned how to control their excitement, especially when multiple rambunctious children come running their way. They've also learned other obedience lessons such as never barking except when commanded.

How to find a proper companion animal for one of your patients? Unfortunately, there's not yet a comprehensive source. Try talking to local veterinarians. They might be your best bet in tracking down a local AAT or AAA program. The Delta Society ( http://www.deltasociety.org/) also provides information on animal therapy.