Pet Connection: A pet trained to visit patients can speed their recovery

A visit from a dog, cat or other pet can make a bad day disappear. That’s especially true if you are a resident in a nursing home or a patient in a hospital. The experience of visiting with a therapy pet can soothe frazzled nerves, revive dormant memories and bring smiles and laughter in places where those things are often in short supply.

Visits from pets can have significant health and emotional benefits for people in many different situations and types of facilities. Petting an animal is not only calming, it stimulates conversation. And contact with a pet can accelerate recovery from surgery.

Pet visits take many different forms. Most of us think of them at nursing homes or hospitals, but animal visitation teams also go to such places as schools for students with special needs and hospice facilities for people with terminal illnesses. Some pets and their handlers participate in programs at schools and libraries that help children improve their reading skills by reading books to pets. Have you ever thought of making facility visits with your dog or cat?

It’s not as easy as just signing up – I should know. My dog Harper, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, has flunked therapy training twice because she’s just a little too enthusiastic about wanting to greet people.

Pets who make facility visits can be purebreds or mixed breeds. Some have been adopted from shelters. The only requirement is that they have the right personality. Both pet and handler must undergo training and evaluation before they can begin to participate in therapy programs.

Here are some things to know if you’re interested in getting started:

•  Dogs and cats must be at least 1 year old before they can make visits. Pocket pets, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and rats, can be 6 months old.

•  Dogs should enjoy meeting strangers and have good basic obedience skills.

•  Qualifications include being able to greet people calmly; walking politely without pulling, jumping on people or stealing food; being comfortable in crowded situations; willing to sit patiently for petting; calming down quickly after praise or play; getting along with other animals; being unfazed by people using canes, crutches, walkers or wheelchairs; and taking treats without snapping or lunging for them.

•  Cats, bunnies and other pocket pets should be relaxed and friendly, willing to be handled by strangers and calm in the presence of loud noises and unpredictable situations. They may also need to be comfortable wearing a harness and leash or riding in a basket.

•  Pets must be clean and healthy, with short nails that won’t scratch patients.

•  Some organizations do not permit visits by pets who are fed a raw diet. Others restrict visits by pit bull-type dogs.

•  Handlers must be able to commit to a regular schedule of visits. People in facilities come to count on seeing them, and it can be a big disappointment if the animal doesn’t show up. They should also be comfortable talking to strangers and answering questions about their pets. Managing an animal’s comfort level is a priority. Making visits can be tiring or stressful for pets, even if they enjoy the attention.

•  Visits typically last 45 minutes to an hour. Teams make stops at different rooms, wherever their presence is requested, or they may go to one large room where people who want to meet themhave gathered.

For more information about training for animal-assisted visits, contact organizations such as Pet Partners (, Love on a Leash (, Therapy Dogs International (, Therapy Dogs Inc. (, Paws for Friendship ( and Reading Education Assistance Dogs (

The buzz

Does your Siamese or Burmese cat love to suck on your wool sweaters? Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman and veterinary geneticist Dr. Leslie Lyons, in a study funded by Winn Feline Foundation, are working to find out why. Wool-sucking behavior can occur in any cat, but it’s more common in Oriental breeds. Dodman and Lyons hope to discover whether wool-sucking has a genetic basis and uncover the physiological mechanisms involved in the obsessive disorder. That could lead to better treatment options and provide a genetic screening test to identify carriers.

• Epilepsy is a common neurological condition in dogs, characterized by recurrent seizures. Medications are available to control the seizures, but sometimes the side effects are worse than the disease, or the drugs don’t do enough to reduce the number of seizures. A recent study by Great Britain’s Royal Veterinary College found that the time between seizures, rather than the number of seizures, is a better predictor of whether a dog will respond well to treatment.