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by Debbie Hommel, BA, ACC, CTRS, Executive Director of DH Special Services
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Executive Director
DH Special Services
About Debbie

Debbie Hommel, BA, ACC,
CTRS, is the Executive
Director of DH Special
Services. She is a Certified
Activity Consultant on State
and National level, with over
twenty-seven years of
experience in providing direct
care and consultation to long
term care, medical day care,
assisted living, and ICF/MR
facilities throughout New
Jersey, New York, Maryland,
and Pennsylvania. She is an
experienced trainer and
workshop presenter,
conducting a variety of
seminars throughout the
Tri-State area for the Activity
Professional, Administrator,
and allied healthcare
professional. Debbie Hommel
is an active member of Activity
Professional Associations on
State and National levels. She
is ACC certified through the
NCCAP. She is a founding
member of the New Jersey
Activity Professionals'
Association, serving terms as
Vice President and President.
She received the Weidner
Lifetime Achievement Award
in 1994 and the Monmouth &
Ocean County Activity
Professionals Life
Achievement Award in 1999.
Let Debbie answer your
Activity Questions
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for Activity Professionals
in Long Term Care Settings

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“Mans Best Friend”
Pet Facilitated Therapy in Long Term Care – Part I
by Debbie Hommel, ACC/MC/EDU, CTRS

Walking into the lobby, my eyes are drawn to the small poodle who greets me.  “His
name is Tootles”, says the gentleman seated in a wheelchair by the front door.  “He’s
our guard dog”, he added with a chuckle.  I reached down to pet Tootles and I was
officially welcomed to the home.  Residential pets contribute to creating homes in our
care facilities.  Whether your facility has a resident pet or visiting pets, the therapeutic
value of pets in care facilities is well documented.   The relationship between man and
animal can be traced to the Ancient Romans, who had domesticated dogs and birds as
companions.  Today, many people view their pets as members of the family.  Providing
opportunities to continue a human/pet relationship into our care facilities provides
countless benefits.

Pet therapy is also called animal assisted therapy by researchers and physicians.  
According to Wikipedia - “Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves
an animal with specific characteristics becoming a fundamental part of a person's
treatment. Animal-assisted therapy is designed to improve the physical, social and
cognitive functioning of the patient.”   Formal pet facilitated therapy programs were
introduced into long term care facilities in the 1970’s, with the intent to humanize health

There has been much research regarding the benefits of the pet/human relationship.
The earliest study can be traced back to England in 1792 where caring for birds and
rabbits was introduced to the mentally ill at the York Retreat.  In the 1800’s, Florence
Nightingale, known as the Mother of Hospital Recreation - stated in her Notes on
Nursing that “a small pet animal" as an "excellent companion for the sick." Florence
was the owner of a pet owl and she also stated, "A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the
only pleasure of an invalid confined for many years to the same room".   In the 1970’s, a
study in Australia was one of the first studies to document that pet owners were less
likely to suffer from heart disease; that pet owners had lower blood pressure and pet
owners exercised more.  More recent studies in nursing homes in NY, Missouri and
Texas documented that elders in long term care facilities needed to see the doctor less
frequently and medication costs dropped from $3.80 per patient day to $1.80 per day.  
The overall benefits of a pet therapy program include:

   -Mental stimulation: Pets provoke reminiscence and discussion of personal pets
from the past and pet care taking tasks.  It is interesting to observe residents with
dementia who remember the names of visiting pets while they cannot remember what
they had for lunch.   Animals have provoked increased socialization amongst staff and
residents    and been described as “social lubricants’.  

   -Diversion: A visiting or residential pet shifts the focus away from the individual’s
personal problems to something else.   There is nothing like a cute kitten or dog to
provoke a smile and change one’s outlook.  

   Acceptance: A common benefit defined in the animal/human bond is the
unconditional love offered from the pet.  The pet offers affection freely, regardless of
mental or physical status.  

   Physical: Reaching out to the pet, petting the pet, moving around to better reach and
see the pet are motivated behaviors that the elder might not do otherwise.  There have
been many documented cases of residents who independently wheel themselves to
the lobby daily to see the bird aviary or come to the activity room to see the facility cat.  
These are physical movements that would not be initiated without the motivation of
seeing the pet.  

   Self Esteem: Involving the residents in caring for the pets gives them a sense of
purpose.  Not being needed anymore or not having to take care of anything is a
devastating loss amongst the elderly.  Many residents feel a renewed sense of being
needed when involved in the daily care of facility pets.

   Enjoyment:  Watching the antics of residential or visiting pets is amusing.  It is similar
to watching children as you never know what they might do.   It is hard not smile or
laugh watching kittens playing with a string or when a dog wags his tail in response to
a pat on his head.

   Physiological:  Petting animals releases serotonin, a mood elevating hormone and is
known to lower blood pressure.   There are some studies which indicate involvement
with pets improves one’s immune system and lower cholesterol levels.

Anyone who has introduced a pet facilitated therapy program within their community can
attest to these benefits and more.  In some cases, the benefits are like magic,
appearing before your own eyes.

Next month’s article will focus on how to facilitate a pet visiting program and what
regulations must be considered.

"Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions, they pass no
criticisms." ~George Elliot