Motivating a patient to go one step further than the day before, giving a child confidence with reading or a cuddle during a difficult time — the possibilities for animal therapy are endless.
Melinda Kovács, a volunteer with Pet Partners, sees it as a “win-win-win” situation.
“The residents delight in the visits, my animals love having a job and every single time I go on a visit, my day gets better,” said Kovács, who takes her animals to St. Joseph area nursing homes.
Kovács visits with her Australian shepherd mix, Bailey, her border collie, Malcolm, and Manx cat, Elsa.
Visiting makes the day of those they visit — and this includes the staff too, Kovács said.
“Residents smile and talk to the animals, even if otherwise they would be sitting around sullen and silent,” she said. “The staff also welcome a break, a fluffy touch and the smiles these visitors bring.”
Elaine Bowers, and her sister-in-law Rosan Bowers, also belong to Pet Partners and visit with their dogs in and around St. Joseph.
“It’s rewarding to see the pleasure and joy the dogs can bring to people of all ages just by being there,” Elaine Bowers said.
“The smiles that dogs bring are the ultimate reward,” Rosan Bowers added.
Kovács, Elaine Bowers and Rosan Bowers have countless stories of how powerful the human-animal bond can be. Elaine Bowers currently visits with Mo, a standard poodle, and Rosan Bowers visits with Mo’s brother, Sid, and Smudge, another standard poodle.
Time and time again, Kovács, an associate professor of political science at Missouri Western State University and a Pet Partners evaluator, has seen nursing home residents with cognitive impairments benefit from the visits.
“Dementia and Alzheimer’s are typical diagnoses, and they impair communication skills,” she said. “Some residents do not have verbal communication with staff, or even with family. However, these animals bring back verbal communication to a shocking extent.”
She recalls a particular encounter when she and Elsa visited a nursing home. One resident was verbal, but was not forming sentences — communication was near impossible.
“We put the cat on this person’s lap and all of a sudden there were full and correct sentences that we were hearing,” Kovács said. “The chat was repetitive, for sure, but it was still a chat.”
When it was time for them to conclude their visit, Kovács lifted Elsa out of the resident’s lap.
“As soon as I removed the cat, the full sentences disappeared and the communication went back to what it had been,” she said.
Rosan Bowers has a similar story. She and her dogs regularly visited a woman who never spoke except to the dogs.
“Her caregivers did not believe she spoke and were amazed to see her speaking to the dogs,” Rosan Bowers said. “When she passed away, her relatives asked if the dogs would attend her funeral. We did!”
Another time, Rosan and her dogs visited a patient who the dogs knew needed some extra affection. Normally, they are instructed to wait until a barrier cloth is placed on the bed for them.
“As soon as we entered the room, the dogs jumped up on the bed,” she said. “They knew that’s what he needed. It changed his whole personality while the dogs were there.”
“The dogs bring back memories for the elderly and encourage the younger ones,” Elaine Bowers said.
And research shows that other species also can make an impact. In addition to dogs and cats, Pet Partners (the group Kovács and Elaine Bowers and Rosan Bowers belong to) also registers rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, rats, miniature pigs, llamas, alpacas, horses, donkeys and equines.
“I have loved visiting and intend to continue doing it indeterminately,” Kovács said. “It may sound corny, but it is a way of sharing love. And it is a way of experiencing how the love that these animals bring, is a seemingly infinite resource. It never seems to run out or lessen.”