Tapping into the healing power of animal magnetism

Sometimes, a little horseplay is just what the doctor ordered.

Just after lunch on an ordinary Tuesday, three children, all wearing pajamas covered in cartoon tigers, almost simultaneously left their hospital beds for an extraordinary event.

Ten-year-old Anjanette Davis and 6-year-old Eli Huerta each wheeled their IV stands through the doors of their adjacent hospital rooms. Just across the hall, 3-year-old Elle Thompson walked up to the doorway.

What drew their attention and prompted their similarly wide smiles? Two miniature horses were standing in the hospital hallway, wearing tiny gym shoes from Build-A-Bear and bandannas around their necks.

Mystery and Jennie, 26 inches and 28 inches tall respectively, are registered miniature horses and certified therapy animals. But they look a little more like fairy-tale creatures or something out of a children’s story. The tiny gym shoes — Mystery had pink ones and Jennie wore black — put an exclamation point on their whimsical appearance. The horses — two of the most unusual therapy animals in the country — were making a repeat performance at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, charming not just the patients but the doctors, nurses, staff and medical students. And the gym shoes were not just a fashionable touch; the tiny hooves can slip on tile floors, so the shoes are necessary.

Animal therapy is not new but appears to be on the upswing, according to Pet Partners, a Washington state-based nonprofit organization that registers and trains volunteer teams across the U.S. in providing animal-assisted therapy as well as more casual animal interactions with humans.

“Anecdotally, we continue to see an increase in the number of facilities seeking volunteer teams to provide animal-assisted interactions to a wide variety of clients,” said Mary Margaret Callahan, Pet Partners’ senior national director of program development. “In 2014 more than 1 million visits were provided in all 50 states.”

Dogs are the most common type of animal used for therapy in health care settings, but rabbits, pigs, horses, llamas and other animals also are used.

Mystery and Jennie are part of the six-horse Mane in Heaven organization in suburban Chicago, founded by nurse, Jodie Diegel and staffed solely by volunteers. Mane in Heaven takes horses to visit nursing homes, schools, hospitals, veterans’ centers and places that work with people with development disabilities, homeless people and survivors of domestic violence.

“A site visit usually lasts up to two hours and involves an exchange of unconditional love between the horses and our clients,” Diegel wrote in an article for Nurse.com. “People watch, pet, brush, hug and take pictures with the minis. Rather than thinking and talking about themselves and their problems, our clients focus on the animals.”

Mane in Heaven doesn’t charge to bring the horses out, relying solely on donations and the volunteer staff. And because it relies on donations, that means there is a waiting list for horse visits.

Diegel said research shows that there are physical, mental and emotional benefits of visiting with animals.

“Many people are able to relax when animals are present. It is documented that blood pressures decrease when one is petting an animal due to relaxation,” Diegel said. “When they are with animals, some people feel spiritual fulfillment or a sense of oneness with life and nature. We see all of these benefits at each and every visit, through the hugs, the smiles, the laughter, all healing for the soul which translates into physical healing.”

A 2014 article in the Annals of Long-Term Care notes that the therapeutic benefits of animals to humans is being increasingly recognized, leading to more health care facilities providing animal-assisted therapy.

Author Lorraine Ernst writes that during the 1930s Sigmund Freud used dogs to help facilitate communication with patients. Commenting on a 2007 study evaluating the impact of hospital visits with therapy dogs, Ernst writes that patients “experienced a reduction in both the mental and physical effects of the excited sympathetic nervous system, as demonstrated by improved cardiopulmonary pressures and decreased … (anxiety) levels.”

Additionally, a 2004 study investigated changes in immune function when participants petted a dog, concluding that the action may improve the ability to fight off infections.

In Florida, Dr. Mark Roh, president of UF Health Cancer Center in Orlando, said a pet-therapy program begun there in 1991 with just two dogs now has 40 pet-therapy teams making more than 55,000 patient visits a year.

“The impact that these volunteers and therapy dogs have when they walk into our patients’ rooms or sit at the feet of a chemotherapy patient undergoing cancer treatment is truly amazing,” Roh said. “Pet therapy may be the softer side of health care, but it’s critical to what we do every day. It reduces patient stress, calms fears and anxieties and in turn results in much quicker healing times. Our four-legged volunteers can change the mood of a patient just by walking into a room; that’s pretty impactful.”

In Washington state, Evergreen Health Hospice volunteer coordinator Melissa Lubatti said animal-assisted therapy offers unconditional love and acceptance benefiting not just patients but families and staff as well.

“Our volunteer handlers and their animals help us to provide an additional therapy that supports a holistic approach that we as human caregivers simply couldn’t achieve without them,” she said.

Robyn Hart, director of Child Life Services at Rush, knows firsthand the value of animals in hospital settings.

“Animals have a marvelous capacity to raise people’s spirits, to calm kids down,” she said. “When the horses go through the halls, the kids and the staff, their eyes just widen.”

Because the miniature horses are so unusual, Hart said, they “have this kind of magical quality about them, kind of like mythical animals and a little bit of ‘My Little Pony’ all rolled into one.”

It was clear that the animals were making a difference for patients.

Anjanette’s mother, Antoinette Davis, said that because of her daughter’s sickle cell anemia, the child has been hospitalized at least once a month for the last five years.

“She’s actually excited to come to the hospital because she knows the horses might be here,” the mother said.

Next door, Eli Huerta was not feeling so well. He had abdominal pain following an appendectomy and needed to get up and move around. After he made his way out into the hall to pet the horses, his nurse said that was the farthest distance he had walked all day.

Across the hall, 3-year-old patient Elle Thompson and older sister Jayla Lovett reveled in an in-room visit. “I’m totally going to tell my friends,” the older girl said.

The hospital also has a resident rabbit named Coco that “can be pulled out whenever she’s needed,” Hart said.

Too, Rush has taken the unusual step of allowing patients to have their own pets visit them. Such visits also are allowed at hospitals in other states, including Iowa, Maryland and Minnesota — all a testament to the healing power of animals.

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