Pet Therapy Brings Comfort to Patients and Families

Pet TherapyWhen you think about famous animals in movies and television, what pet comes to mind? Do you visualize Toto from the “Wizard of Oz?” Perhaps you imagine Petey from “Our Gang” (and later “The Little Rascals”)? Maybe you picture Mr. Ed? Or did Babe the pig come to mind? Whatever animal you imagine, the thread that ties them all together is the unconditional love pets have for their owners and the profound impact they have on the individuals they meet. It will therefore come as no surprise that pet therapy can bring comfort to hospice patients and families.

Pet Therapy Across Time

Believe it or not, the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, was instrumental in pioneering the concept of pet therapy helping patients. In 1837, when she was only 17 years old, Florence met a sheepdog named Cap owned by a local farmer in Derbyshire where she grew up. Roger lived alone with Cap until some village youngsters threw stones at the dog. The shenanigans resulted in an injury to Cap’s leg, which would not allow it to herd sheep for Roger. Fortuitously for the sheepdog, Florence came to the rescue after discovering that Roger would be euthanizing Cap, and she put a stop to the plan. After an examination, Florence learned that Cap’s leg was bruised and not broken, and the dog was nursed back to health simply with warm compresses and rest. This event so affected the young woman that she took up nursing as a profession shortly thereafter.

Throughout the course of her nursing career, Florence wrote extensively about the connection between animals and patient recuperation in both healing and morale. In fact, she had a pet owl named Athena and wrote that a small pet “is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.”

After Florence paved the way, others followed suit, even Dr. Sigmund Freud. The legendary founder of psychoanalysis actually utilized his dog—a Chow named Jo-Fi—in therapy sessions with his patients after he noticed the calming influence the dog had, especially with children. At an American Psychological Association convention in 1961, Dr. Boris Levinson presented his findings of using his dog, Jingles, in therapy sessions with a troubled young boy. After which time, Dr. Levinson became known as the father of modern-day, animal-assisted therapy, or pet therapy.

How Does Pet Therapy Help?

People have pets for a variety of reasons. notwithstanding a love of animals. Dogs, cats and other pets serve as readymade companions. They provide affection, decrease stress and increase a sense of well-being.

The same positive effects hold true for hospice patients and their families. Therapy animals, especially dogs, interact with patients and families to reduce the anxiety, depression and fatigue that often accompany chronic and advanced illnesses.

Studies have demonstrated that pet therapy can provide immediate benefits, psychological and physiological, to hospice patients and seniors. One study in the Journal of Palliative Care showed that a miniature poodle, which became a resident at a hospice inpatient facility, improved morale and interactions between staff and patients. Another study researched how hospice caregivers described their experiences of providing pet therapy to hospice patients. Findings determined that pet therapy may provide psychosocial benefits to both hospice patients and their caregivers, and therefore could be a beneficial hospice program.

Pet Therapy Across Our Affiliates

pet therapyIn the morning, afternoon, evening or even on the weekend,  community members who visit the hospice houses at Good Shepherd Hospice, HPH Hospice  and LifePath Hospice  will probably meet a pet volunteer. These pets not only bring joy and peace to many patients at the hospice houses but also visit patients wherever they call home. Accompanied by their human parents, certified and trained animals visit patients and families to provide a different type of care.

In order to visit patients and families, animals and their owners/handlers must undergo a screening and certification process. It is important to test animals’ temperaments to determine how well they will react with adults, children, loud noises, walkers and wheelchairs.

Pet therapy animals need to be:

  • Completely housebroken
  • Obedient and able to follow simple commands, such as “stay,” “come” and “sit”
  • Interact well with humans, young and old alike, without showing any aggression
  • Cleared by a veterinarian and be current with all vaccinations

If you are interested in learning more about pet therapy and volunteering, please contact volunteer services at any of our affiliates. For Good Shepherd Hospice in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, please call at 863.551.3943.  For HPH Hospice in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, please call 727.816.3647. And for LifePath Hospice in Hillsborough County, please call 813.871.8237.

You are not alone—we are here to help. For additional information, please call our helpful Chapters Health team at 1.866.204.8611 or send an email to


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