August 14, 2000
Volume XXXIII, No. 31

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School of Nursing offers animal-assisted therapy course

Nursing

Animal lovers know how comforting the presence of their dogs or cats can be, especially in times of stress. Even watching birds or fish has been shown to lower stress levels among residents of nursing homes and people waiting to see a dentist or doctor.

Studies have shown that the presence of animals can help Alzheimerís patients orient to reality as well as lessen anxiety and aggression. Contact with animals also has been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate and the risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adult males.

Animal-assisted therapy, or AAT, builds on the affinity for animals common to many individuals. Linda Porter, assistant professor in the Department of Acute Nursing Care, teaches AAT in a summer elective at the School of Nursing. It is the first time the course has been taught, and Porter is looking at repeating it for the fall. She would like to open the course to students enrolled in all five schools eventually.

Porter is an active member of the Delta Society, an international non-profit organization that promotes the therapeutic use of animals to enhance humansí well-being and health. Its Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy define AAT as a "goal-directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process." The person handling the animal must be a professional in the health or human services field who uses the animal as a part of his or her job.

Porter regularly uses AAT in her part-time family and marital therapy practice. She has found that her two golden retrievers, Cyrano and Sparky, can help children and adolescents begin to communicate with her. "Itís a good way to connect with children who are emotionally vulnerable or who lack trust. Animals function as a safety feature and help children work through their feelings," she said. They can also be helpful in redirecting or modifying undesirable behaviors and in developing relationship and nurturing skills.

In addition to dogs and cats, horses have been successfully incorporated into treatment plans. Porter has used her horse, Stayready Hope, occasionally for children who have significant issues with antisocial behavior, depression and self-esteem.

Cancer patient with dog on bed.

In a recent class at the School of Nursing, Vickie Squires, director of child life and child development services at Christus Santa Rosa Childrenís Hospital, introduced her dog Bella (pictured). Bella, an Australian shepherd, is a certified Delta Society "Pet Partner" who entertains sick children in the hospital. On the command "cuddle," she will climb in bed with the child (with a towel between the child and the dog), and stay still to be hugged and petted.

An animal visit to a sick child requires a doctorís order and permission from the childís parents, Squires explained. Children who have cancer or other chronic diseases often are in the hospital for extended stays. They may have had dogs at home, or may have had to give their dogs away as a precaution against infection in children with compromised immune systems. A visit with an animal can be very soothing and relaxing for a child in an institutional setting.

Not only the children benefit, said Squires. Bella, the dog, also visits the staffs at the neonatal intensive care unit and several hospital administrators, who enjoy her visits.

Dogs who visit patients in institutions must be screened regularly for health, and be evaluated and trained around wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and unfamiliar noises and smells. Porter is part of the Delta Society evaluation team that determines whether a dog, cat or rabbit is suitable. Visits at Santa Rosa are arranged through the Delta Societyís Pet Partners Program and through the volunteer organization Paws for Service. Porter and Squires said even cats can be socialized to be visitation animals, if they have the right temperament.

In addition to her therapy practice, Porter teaches administration in the School of Nursing. Before joining the Health Science Center she was the vice president for patient care services at Santa Rosa Childrenís Hospital. She received her bachelorís and masterís degrees in nursing at Indiana University and a masterís degree in marriage and family therapy from St. Maryís University. She is certified in advanced administration and is a pediatric clinical nurse specialist. She will soon receive her doctorate in marriage and family therapy.