It’s well known that animal-assisted therapy, also known as companion animal visits or pet visitation therapy, has beneficial effects on patients in medical facilities. There are records as far back as 1790 of the Quakers in England taking friendly dogs into mental institutions to help calm and quiet the patients there. Florence Nightingale, considered by many as the founder of modern nursing, wrote in her Notes on Nursing that being with small animals helps patients recover.
It’s also known that even the healthiest of us benefit from contact with a pet. Stroking an animal can lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, reduce loneliness, and improve one’s mental outlook and quality of life. It also improves social emotional and cognitive functions.
Unfortunately, the majority of seniors facilities on Vancouver Island and elsewhere do not allow their residents to have pets. It’s a situation Sadie Guy, the founder of the Pacific Animal Therapy Society, found to be unacceptable.
That’s why when Guy retired from nursing in 1988 she was inspired to put her own lifelong love of dogs and her understanding of the benefits of pet ownership to good use. She began by simply taking her own beloved mixed-breed companion, Toby, to the Saanich Peninsula Hospital to visit patients there. When she experienced the overwhelming level of support and enthusiasm for her visits, she enlisted the help of a few friends and a veterinarian, and together they set up the Pacific Animal Therapy Society (PATS) and expanded their offer of visits to the seniors residences in and around Victoria.
The current president of PATS, Nichole Little, is enthusiastic about the impact felt by the seniors who benefit from the program.
“You have no idea of how rewarding it is,” said Little. “You can be sitting there with an elderly person who is suffering from some form of dementia, and they will wake up and see the dog. Their eyes light up and they reach out to pet the animal and they’ll start talking to the dog, and then to the human volunteer about the dogs they’d known throughout their lives. They are happy, and it brings a tear to your eye to be a part of that.”
The 160 human volunteers (and slightly more animal volunteers) are all ages and come from all walks of life. What they share is their love of animals and their desire to share the happiness that pets bring.
While most of the 24 visits per month to seniors’ facilities are group visits in common areas, PATS does provide some one-on-one visits to about another 23 facilities.
In order to volunteer for PATS, the human volunteers must take an orientation course where they are given some guidelines to follow during the visits. The pet volunteers are also screened for temperament and behaviour as well as for their medical condition and inoculations.
“The need is really growing out there,” said Little. “There’s a growing awareness of the benefits of the PATS visitations and more and more facilities are reaching out, looking for our help. Let’s face it, pets make us happier…they help us to laugh.”
PATS is always looking for more human and pet volunteers and more information can be found at patspets.ca.