Pet Partners - Office of Community Engagement
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Pet Partners

Therapy animal visits brighten VA medical centers

VA and Pet Partners will increase animal visitation programming for Veterans

Walt Davis, a retired Army Reserve Veteran and volunteer animal handler with the nonprofit Pet Partners, visits patients at the Kansas City VA Medical Center (KCVAMC) with his dog Cinnabun, a chihuahua. Mr. Davis said he’s seen the transformational effect his visits with Cinnabun can have on patients.

“Rather than in a hospital environment, she takes them to a different time and place where things are much happier, and she lifts their mood,” he said. “You can see that occurring in front of your eyes. It’s not me who does that — it’s Cinnabun. She’s the lead actress, and she wins an Oscar every time.”

Mr. Davis said he has experienced symptoms stemming from posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. His visits to KCVAMC, he said, have improved his health and his well-being and represent an important way of giving back.

“Volunteering with Cinnabun gave me a sense of responsibility, didn’t make me feel so isolated, alone, and bored, and gave me something else to think about,” Mr. Davis said. “Cinnabun turned out to be a therapy dog for me. I thought, ‘If she can do this for me, she can do it for someone else, too.’” Mr. Davis and Cinnabun have logged more than 100 hours of volunteer service and are working toward 200 hours.

Pet Partners is a national leader in spreading the health and wellness benefits of animal-assisted activities and therapies. Extensive research1,2, shows that people in contact with animals may experience lower blood pressure, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lessened anxiety and pain, and decreased feelings of loneliness. Pet Partners’ volunteer handlers, along with their trained animals, have long visited Veterans at several VA medical centers throughout the nation.

Now, Pet Partners has joined with VA to develop more opportunities for Veterans to benefit from pet visitation, clinical interventions with therapy animals, and other activities and events. The aim of this partnership is to bring to more Veteran patients the benefits of the human-animal bond.

“There was always anecdotal recognition that animals were good for people, but it took a while for the research to catch up,” said Mary Margaret Callahan, chief mission officer for Pet Partners. “This partnership starts to formally recognize that there are roles for therapy animals within VA, that there is a benefit, that there is a place for therapy animals within these medical centers to help Veterans.”

Ms. Callahan said that while dogs constitute nearly 94% of the animals in volunteer teams, Pet Partners welcomes volunteer animals of nine different species, including rabbits, cats, llamas, and mini pigs.

Sometimes, health care practitioners identify the goals of therapy animal visits based on patient needs; other times, visits are less structured. Often, the goal of a therapy animal visit is simply to relieve boredom or stress.

There are even health benefits of Veteran patients’ refusing an animal visit, Ms. Callahan said.

“If you are in the hospital and don’t have a lot of choice or a lot of control, being asked and having the ability to decline can be very empowering,” she explained.

When visits happen, several people benefit: the patients; their families, caregivers, and loved ones; and the volunteer handler.

When volunteer therapy animal handler John LaRoe visits KCVAMC waiting rooms with Suzi Q, a Saint Bernard, people can’t help but cheer up. Patients love to pet Suzi Q and give her treats, said Mr. LaRoe, and are often reminded of animals in their own lives.

“On most visits, Suzi Q will interact with a few patients and several staff in what I call her stand-up comic mode,” said Mr. LaRoe. In this mode, Suzi Q “works the room,” wanders from person to person, rubs her head on people’s knees, and makes people smile and laugh.

“It’s so low-key, it’s tempting to think those visits aren’t all that important,” Mr. LaRoe said. “It just seems like home to me. I’m sitting there with my dog, talking to friends with the TV on. Then I remember: They’ll have the TV all week and each other. But this is the only time they’ll have the dog.”

At KCVAMC, Pet Partners volunteers have also visited patients in hospice care, said Melissa Jacobson, chief of voluntary services.

“We’ve had patients on hospice who were pet owners and their personal pets couldn’t come visit, so we’ve had clinicians ask if we can get a Pet Partners animal to visit a hospice patient in their last days,” Ms. Jacobson said. “Then, the handlers all came in as much as they possibly could. They all came in to visit together.”

VA will continue working with Pet Partners to disseminate information about this partnership and get more VA medical centers involved.

“Relationships with this one with Pet Partners provide an opportunity for the community and VA to creatively work together to improve the health and well-being of Veterans,” said Tracy Weistreich, acting director of Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Community Engagement (OCE).

OCE is proud to serve as a trusted resource and catalyst for the growth of partnerships such as this one with Pet Partners. For more on OCE’s work, visit https://www.va.gov/healthpartnerships.

Veterans or family members of Veterans receiving care at a VA medical center can contact Pet Partners about the possibility of bringing animal therapy to their facility at: https://petpartners.org/learn/pet-partners-at-your-facility/. Pet owners interested in volunteering as an animal handler team can contact Pet Partners at: https://petpartners.org/volunteer/ or https://petpartners.org/contact-us.

1Brooks, H. L., Rushton, K., Lovell, K., Bee, P., Walker, L., Grant, L., & Rogers, A. (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC psychiatry, 18(1), 31. doi:10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2.

2Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 234. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234

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