Pet Therapy in Hospice Care

Paw Pals<sup>®</sup> Hospice Volunteers

When Animals Do What People Can't

Remember “Lassie”? Each week on the 1950s TV show, the brave collie saved her family and friends from wells, fires and other dangers. The show demonstrated in dramatic fashion what hospice patients experience every day—the devotion of our four-legged friends.

Many of our hospice locations have what are known as therapy pets: loving animals—and their owners—who are trained to provide comfort and a special kind of friendship to anyone who can benefit, from a child struggling to read to disaster victims and the elderly. Hospice pet volunteers visit patients in nursing homes, assisted living communities and private homes. They offer a welcome distraction from illness and help people feel a little less lonely. They leave their patients—and anyone else lucky enough to be around—smiling, more relaxed, maybe even healthier.

The therapeutic use of pets has gained more attention and widespread acceptance as it continues to bring measurable benefits to all kinds of needs. It even has an acronym; HAI research (for human–animal interaction) is the study of the association between pet caregiving and physical and mental health. 

The benefits of pet therapy include:

  • Comfort care
  • Bringing back memories
  • Encourage activity
  • Providing unconditional love

Healthcare experts say that hospice patients are noticeably more active and responsive during and after animal visits. But pet therapists, hospice teams and families don’t need statistics and research to see that pets can bring about change that no amount of human intervention or medicine seems to accomplish.

Become A Paw Pal® Volunteer

At VITAS, the pet visit program is called Paw Pals. VITAS trains friendly, well-behaved pets to be Paw Pals. A registered VITAS Paw Pals volunteer, always accompanied by its human companion, knows how to visit patients near the end of life and is at ease in medical and residential facilities as well as private homes. 

Although most VITAS Paw Pals are dogs, other animal volunteers may be considered on a case-by-case basis. All potential volunteers, and their human companion, are screened.

Please contact your local program to find out if VITAS Paw Pals are available in your location, whether they are accepting new volunteers for training or how to arrange for a Paw Pals visit.

SEE ALSO: Get information on becoming a Paw Pals volunteer in a VITAS hospice program near you.

Volunteers Share Their Stories

Paw Pals volunteers, and their owners, love to tell stories of the moments they have played a part in. One Paw Pal owner recalled a visit to a VITAS inpatient hospice unit:

“I stopped at a patient’s room and asked the husband if his wife would like to have a visit with Pogo, my Shetland sheepdog,” the volunteer said. “He said they’d never had animals and he didn’t think she’d be interested. But I could see that she was interested, so I asked if I could just put the dog on her bed. The woman immediately put her arms around Pogo and held him for 15 minutes or more. She passed away the next day. Her husband later said that it was the first time in three years he had seen her smile. He has that memory of her smiling. That’s what pet therapy does; it brings hope to people.”

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