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Pet Therapy

Animals enhancing health

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Pet Therapy

Dogs alert diabetic owners to drops in blood sugar. Dogs, cats, and other animals provide pet therapy to assist owners with physical, mental, and social needs.

“He’s saved my life so many times,” my mom says to me. “He’s figured out when my blood sugars are low.” Living with diabetes, my mom often enters a state called hypoglycemic unawareness, in which she can’t recognize when her blood sugar levels become dangerously low–but her beloved Maltese Cross Paddy can.

A recent article in the American Diabetes Association magazine Forecast describes this canine ability to alert their owners to drops in blood sugar. Some suspect that changes in volatile organic compounds in the breath can be detected by sensitive animals and trigger their response. Although recent research has yet to conclude exactly how dogs detect this drop in blood sugar, centres devoted to training dogs and pairing them with sufferers of diabetes have already sprung up across North America. Dogs4Diabetics in northern California and Canine Partners for Life in Pennsylvania are two of note.

Sharing the Love

Family pets may not always play such a crucial role in the lives of their owners, but some owners recognize the joy and comfort contact with animals brings and want to share it with others. The Pacific Animal Therapy Society in British Columbia welcomes volunteers interested in donating their time and their pets–typically cats and dogs–to visit retirement homes and hospitals.

Therapeutic Paws of Canada also provides animal interactions to assist with physical, mental, educational, and social shortfalls through school, library, hospital, and home visitations. One such initiative is “Paws to Read,” a program that pairs child-certified therapy dogs and handlers with students struggling with reading skills. Children may overcome low self-esteem and problems of peer intimidation by reading to their Paws to Read dog, a natural listener.

Therapeutic interactions aren’t solely limited to cats and dogs. The Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association, founded in 1980, has over 100 member centres across Canada providing therapeutic, recreation, life skills, and sports programs for children and adults with disabilities. Some centres offer physical therapy that transfers the horse’s movements to the body of the rider. Other centres explore improving mental health through the relationship created between horse and rider.

Assessing the Evidence

Many of us instinctively appreciate the value of animal interactions, but how effective are animals in assisting those in need?

The Delta Society, an international, nonprofit organization, unites millions of people suffering from mental and physical illnesses and disabilities with trained therapy animals and service dogs. Recent studies show the benefit of animal-assisted therapy. For example, the presence of a dog in the medical examination room or at the dentist reduces a child’s stress. Seniors who own dogs go to the doctor less often than those who don’t and cope better with stressful life events.

Those with borderline hypertension show a reduction in blood pressure on days they take their dogs to work. Setting up fish tanks of brightly coloured fish may diminish disruptive behaviour and improve eating habits of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Those who work with assistance animals recognize the need for further quantitative, scientific study of the effects and benefits of animal-assisted therapy. Surprisingly few definitive studies exist.

In 2000 the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta, the Edmonton SPCA, and Bosco Homes collaborated on the 27-month-long Chimo Project. They assessed the effectiveness of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in private and residential care settings for patients suffering from depression and anxiety-related disorders.

Results showed that AAT seems best suited to patients who already own pets, whereas those without pets may not do as well with this form of therapy, especially to start. Youth were clearly more positive in their attitudes toward attending AAT, and reported a greater level of benefit than those undergoing traditional therapy. Further research with larger, random samples is needed.

Animals are wonderful, sensitive creatures that can provide comfort and support for those looking for a daily companion and those in need of therapy. We have much in common –after all, humans are animals too.

Annoyed by Allergies?

If allergies are a concern, it’s actually the dander, not the fur that causes them. The American Kennel Club recommends certain breeds for allergy sufferers, including the Chinese Crested, the Portuguese Water Dog, and the Schnauzer. Check out their website at akc.org and the Canadian Kennel Club at ckc.ca for more details.

Fed Up With Shedding?

Regular grooming once a week is ideal to reduce shedding, so invest in a good brush suitable to your breed. If you’re looking for a dog that sheds little (all dogs shed to some degree) consider owning a terrier. A number of terrier breeds are considered low shedders, including the Airedale, Boston, and West Highland. A number of other smaller breeds are also desirable: the Cockapoo, the Miniature Poodle, the Shih Tzu, and the Bichon Frise. Each dog breed has different personality traits, so consider these as well when choosing a pooch.

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