Animal-human bond especially strong with frail elderly, kids

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

"What we know from research is that the more vulnerable somebody is — lonely, isolated, physically disabled, mentally challenged or abused — the more impact animal engagement has," Porter-Wenzlaff said.

She said research shows even looking at a picture of an animal that pleases you decreases blood pressure, heart rate and skin conductivity. "It's a calming, settling physiological experience."

She uses horses and dogs to work with abused children and adults with various challenges. "It's not for everyone, but it is powerful when it does work."

How therapy animals interact depends. In hospice, they may spend time quietly with residents. At a nursing home, residents may watch it perform a few tricks. Regardless, she said that those who are visited are more open and engaged in terms of meeting therapeutic goals for a couple of hours after the visit.

"Animals don't live in the past or the future, so they also allow us to engage with them in the moment. People with cognitive problems or who are depressed really are kind of turned off to the environment around them and it's hard to get them to stay engaged" in their treatment, said Porter-Wenzlaff. The animals can change that.

Animals encourage empathy and help with nurturing skills, said Pamela Barlow, manager of animal-assisted therapy programs for the ASPCA. Troubled adolescents who don't necessarily know how to care for another living thing, who haven't had the best care themselves, find animals provide entertainment and escape, she said. Stroke victims find mental stimulation. Animals can prompt recovering patients to exercise.

There are different schools of thought when it comes to therapy animals vs. resident animals, said Barlow. Some frown on it. Animals who live full time in a facility "don't have any sort of escape from interactions." She said they provide fewer benefits than animals trained to come in with a registered handler for a short session. Often, pets are not used to walkers and other equipment. They may not be temperamentally suited to the setting. Registered therapy animals have been checked for health and temperament — and so has their handler. Adult animals are used for therapy because they are more predictable, their personalities and quirks more clear.

And some exotic animals, she added, may pose a health risk to those who are immune compromised. Or their behavior may be unpredictable.

Maddie in motion

When Snow was young, her parents were often gone. She thinks they let her have an odd array of creatures, including a skunk and a squirrel, to entertain her. Helping raise a baby kangaroo seemed perfectly natural to her.

When she went to work at a different rehab center and nursing home 25 years ago, the residents enjoyed the company of cats and dogs, birds and fish and baby goats that wore diapers held on by suspenders.

Twelve years ago, she asked a man who raised kangaroos if she could borrow a baby for the nursing home where she worked. She's had nine over the years, the last six red kangaroos like Maddie.

Maddie is part of a serial undertaking, because while joeys are loving and gentle, once they are teens and hormones kick in, they become aggressive. Besides that, an adult will grow to five feet or taller and can spring six feet and reach speeds up to 40 mph. Soon Maddie will go back to the man who provided her and eventually live in a zoo or exotic reserve.

Maddie doesn't live at the nursing home, but goes in with Snow, who also takes her to visit school kids and special education programs, among others. Often, she lazes in the sunny courtyard or accompanies Snow on her rounds. When she's tired, she dozes in Snow's office.

Recently, children from First Friends Day Care stopped by to feed Maddie a bottle, a banana and a graham cracker and to cuddle her while they visited with some of the elderly veterans at the home. This kangaroo is part charmer, part bridge between generations. And soft as a kitten to the touch.

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