Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

The Healing Power of Pets; Nursing Homes, Hospitals, and Even Prisons Are Going to the Dogs ... and Other Animals ... to Improve the Health and Moral of Patients and Inmates

Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

The Healing Power of Pets; Nursing Homes, Hospitals, and Even Prisons Are Going to the Dogs ... and Other Animals ... to Improve the Health and Moral of Patients and Inmates

Article excerpt


Much has been written in the past few years about the bond between people and their pets. Pets help keep us young: They decrease loneliness, and they give us the opportunity to be needed. Pets also offer a healthier lifestyle by stimulating us to exercise while we take care of them.

Only in the past five years have health-care professionals begun to realize the power of pets to heal, both physically and psychologically. Doctors, psychologists, gerontologists, and therapists are now unleashing that pet power in homes for the elderly, in hospitals and hospices, and in prisons.

The elderly may benefit from pets the most. At a time in their lives when they have returned to dependency on others, they need to feel a sense of responsibility. Pets fulfill this need because they depend on their owners for care and attention. In return, the pets offer love and unqualified approval.

When introduced to regressed and unresponsive nursing-home patients, pets have produced spectacular results. They an brighten the lives of the better-adjusted patients as well. In 1982 a group of Cincinnati veterinarians started "Pets Helping People,' a program that provides pet visitations, with dogs carefully screened for temperament, to nursing homes. Today, "Pets Helping People' sends 83 volunteers to 20 separate institutions; other institution directors are clamoring to be added to the list. The organizers, who hope to branch out into cat visitations, are working as well on a program to maintain permanent pets in nursing homes.

News about the benefits of pets for the elderly has reached Washington, D.C., too. 12 U.S.C. 1701R allows residents in federal housing for the aged and handicapped to keep and care for pets. Landlords, however, may set guidelines for pet ownership and take into consideration the size of the pets, the amount of care they require, and the population of the building. Naturally, the rights of residents who think animals are "for the birds' must also be respected.

Elsewhere, volunteer groups have formed to help the elderly who live in their own homes. These "good scouts' offer dog-walking services, transportation to veterinary hospitals, and foster care for pets should an owner undergo hospitalization or die.

Pets can have a physical as well as a psychological effect. Although I have yet to hear a doctor say "Take one pet and call me in the morning,' such a scenario is not far-fetched, for pets have been proved to lower blood pressure and to hasten healing. The survival rates of 92 coronary patients were studied by one group of researchers, who found that within a year after hospitalization, 11 of 29 patients without pets, but only 3 of 53 who had pets, died. The physical and occupational therapy provided by caring for the pets may have been a factor in this study, but I am convinced that the healing process is physically enhanced by the sense of responsibility and self-worth felt by the pet owners.

And what works for the elderly works for children, too. Specially trained dogs visit the Children's Pavilion at Indianapolis' Methodist Hospital every Thursday to minister to ailing children. The dogs help the young patients to focus attention on getting well rather than on their illnesses.

Programs that involve animals are also being used in prisons. The animals contribute to the rehabilitation of inmates and help improve the quality of life for long-term prisoners. Like the birdman of Alcatraz, many hardened criminals soften up a bit when taking care of parakeets or goldfish in their cells or while tending goats and rabbits in the prison yard. Learning animal grooming and training enables some offenders to gain valuable job skills and to help others by training animals for use by the handicapped.

Pets may not be a cure for all that ails us, but often they are a most effective medicine. If you would like to help animals help people, check your phone book; there may already be an organization in your community. …

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