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Natural Awakenings San Diego

Comforting Companions: The Therapeutic Power of Pets

Oct 31, 2012 02:33PM

Some people find it easier to talk to a pet than to relatives, so a visit from a therapy animal when they are confined at home or in a hospital or nursing facility is welcome. A dog or cat provides a warm body, unconditional acceptance and asks nothing in return. Patients are reminded of pets they previously enjoyed and get a laugh or simply distraction from illness and pain.

On one recent hospice visit in New Bern, North Carolina, when Frosty and owner Lee Juslin, a retired copywriter, entered a quiet room crowded with a nurse and relatives, the Scottish terrier laid her head on the dying woman’s lap. “Oh, my little meatball,” she said, rubbing the dog’s head. Everyone smiled and laughed.

In California, Nancy Denen, a retired high school counselor and teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students attending San Diego’s Poway Unified School District, takes her calico cat, Moorea, to see patients of Elizabeth Hospice, based in Escondido. One of Moorea’s favorites was a 92-year-old man whose dying wish was to pet a cat again; they visited every week for a year. “Moorea always leaves patients smiling and calmer,” says Denen.

Both therapy teams are certified and insured through Love on a Leash, a California-based pet-provided therapy organization. Teams around the country visit hospice patients in their respective regions.

There’s also the need to help seniors that own pets. “For patients that have a pet but become unable to care for them on a day-to-day basis, giving up the pet can be traumatic,” says Dr. Delana Taylor-McNac, a veterinarian and licensed professional counselor who oversees Pet Peace of Mind grants for Banfield Charitable Trust ( She states, “We give grants to nonprofit hospice facilities that partner with animal lovers to provide food, litter, exercise, pet sitting and trips to the vet or groomer.” This allows people to complete their lives with the comfort and companionship of a pet without worrying about its current or future needs.

She also notes, “When patients participate in decisions about their pet’s future, they can find it easier to discuss their own end-of-life decisions.”

Local hospices, humane societies, social workers, Visiting Nurse Association agencies (, Love on a Leash (, Pet Partners ( and Therapy Dogs International ( can help find a therapy service or provide information about becoming a visiting team.

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