Pet therapy is a prescription for good health

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When Bill, 48, arrived at The Scarborough Hospital (TSH) in October 2002, no one could have known how a dog would be part of his prescription for recovery from a stroke.

After his stroke, Bill refused to take his medication. He was distant and irritable. However, everything changed when he met Devon, a golden retriever in the TSH Pet Therapy Program, and his outlook brightened immediately. Following his first meeting with Devon, Bill became more cooperative with the physicians, nurses and other clinicians. A marked change of attitude led to increased participation in other therapeutic programs for Bill, and ultimately, his rehabilitation and discharge home.

“We like to see our stroke patients using their weaker side so they can feel sensations, stimulation and exercise,” said Zahara Nalarali, TSH Recreation Therapist. “Some patients become more receptive to medical treatment, nourishment and even show improvement of speech after visiting with the dogs.”

TSH’s Pet Therapy Program is like a meet and greet between pets and people. Studies show that patting, holding, and lying with the dogs relieves stress and tension. Pet therapy has also been associated with decreased blood pressure levels and increased motivation and activity.

There are three dogs that regularly participate in TSH’s Pet Therapy Program – Devon, a golden retriever; Simba, a Collie; and Raven, a Shetland sheepdog.

Three times a month, volunteers Suzanne Clendinneng, Allan Matthews and Betty Kirkaldy accompany these four legged heroes while visiting various TSH patient care areas – Mental Health, Palliative Care, Acute Care for the Elderly (ACE), and the Stroke Rehab units.

The Pet Therapy Program has been at TSH for 13 years.

Recognizing that not all patients are a fit for this program, patients are first approached to see if they would like to visit with the dogs. If so, the dogs are brought into the room where patients play with them, interact with their owners and feed the dogs treats. A Polaroid keepsake photo with the dogs is taken and given to the patients too.

“We like to see our stroke patients using their weaker side so they can feel sensations, stimulation and exercise,” said Zahara Nalarali, TSH recreation therapist. “Some patients become more receptive to medical treatment, nourishment and even show improvement of speech after visiting with the dogs.”

Marilyn Matheson, TSH Nurse clinician and coordinator of the Acute Neurology and Stroke Rehab program, notes that depression is common in stroke patients. She adds that with the dogs present, the patients get a feeling of self-control and are more high-spirited.

To qualify for the program, each dog attends obedience school and goes through The K9 Good Neighbour dog training program where they are exposed to a busy setting, such as a hospital, and trained to deal with patients in wheelchairs and walkers. For the safety of patients, the volunteers have clean towels to wipe the dogs’ paws when coming in from outside so they don’t track water or dirt around the hospital.

In addition to the formal Pet Therapy Program, family members are encouraged to bring pets to the hospital to visit with patients. With patient safety in mind, patients are brought down to the doors where they can visit their furry friends there.

Betty Kirkaldy, owner of Raven and a volunteer of 10 years, summed up the program perfectly. “If you can walk in and make at least one person smile, it makes your day,” said Kirkaldy. “It’s what keeps you going back day after day, knowing you are helping people.”