Four-legged care team

In an era of technological advancements in health care, sometimes care comes in unusual packages.

Furry packages, that is.

“There are physical as well as emotional benefits,” says Michelle Aberant, President of Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta. “Pets in a healthcare setting are proven to lower patients’ blood pressure, improve mobility and increase self-care.”

Two of the Grey Nuns pet therapy teams: Corinne Reich (left) with Abbey, a Maltese, and Barb Olmstead (right) with Kane, a Doberman. “People often don’t know our names—but they know the dogs’ names!” jokes Barb.

Many Covenant Health continuing care facilities have resident pets that live permanently on site, providing 24/7 companionship to the patients, residents and families. Acute sites are not allowed to keep an animal full-time for infection prevention and control reasons. Instead, acute sites welcome trained therapy animals to meet with patients and residents during regular visiting hours.

“Dogs are the most common in pet therapy,” says Michelle. “However, I’ve seen cats, rabbits and pot-bellied pigs in continuing care, and the results are similar. Fish are also popular for residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s.” 

Barb Olmstead and her Doberman Pinscher, Kane, volunteer together as one of these pet therapy teams.

“When I quit working, I was looking for something to do with my time and I saw a piece on pet therapy,” says Barb. “I always felt Kane has such a soft spirit and kind, gentle eyes—so I asked my daughter if I could borrow Kane, and we went from there.”

Barb and Kane visit the Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton once a week. They often visit with another pet therapy team: Corinne Reich and her Maltese, Abbey.

“Volunteering on the palliative unit requires extra training—but I’ve always wanted to do it,” explains Barb. “If we can give somebody a five- or 10-minute distraction when they’ve been dealt a really crappy hand … it’s a positive way we can share hope.”

Maria Simon (centre), a patient on the Grey Nuns palliative unit, loves visits from Kane (left) and Abbey (right).

Corinne agrees, adding, “The staff on the palliative unit suggested Abbey would be a good fit because she’s so little. You can see the difference Abbey makes on their patients. Oftentimes, it’s not even the patient—it’s the family that needs comfort.” 

As Corinne says this, a woman taps Corinne on the shoulder. She wants to know whether they will bring the dogs over to visit her young son. It was his first visit to the palliative unit to see his grandpa, and he was very nervous.

“Of course we’ll come!” says Corinne.

Abbey and Kane lead the way over to the young boy, who visibly calms down as he scratches the dogs behind their ears.

“Grandpa is allergic to dogs, unfortunately—but sometimes, a few minutes’ distraction is all that’s needed,” says Corinne. 

Joanne Boyce (right) gives a kiss to Kane, a Doberman who volunteers with owner Barb Olmstead (left) on the Grey Nuns palliative unit.

Allergies, bites or scratches, and fear of disease are the most common arguments against pets in a care setting. However, Michelle explains that with training and education, those risks can be reduced significantly. For example, Covenant Health policy guides how to handle patients with allergies, visitation times and the type of animals to incorporate.

Similarly, Pet Therapy Society guidelines require all volunteers—humans and pets—to attend an information night, pass pre-screening and complete one weekend of training, followed by a pass/fail exercise. All animals must be a minimum of two years old and require annual health exams.

With safety checks in place, pet therapy comes down to animals helping people.

“I believe the benefits greatly outweigh the risks,” says Michelle. “We’ve seen cases where patients talk or react only when a dog is in the room. It’s calming to people. It’s really amazing.” 

Covenant Health has dozens of furry, feathered and scaled volunteers! Take a look at some of our friendly pet therapists and their generous human volunteers.   

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