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Pet Health Effects

3 Oct

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that conclusively affirms the numerous positive health effects attributed to human-animal interactions.  Interacting with a pet has been shown to decrease anxiety and to activate the sympathetic nervous system in humans.  Other studies have shown increased survival rates in individuals who had suffered a myocardial infarction (heart attack).  In an article published in Companion Animals in Human Health, Friedman and Thomas examined a group of coronary artery disease sufferers who had experienced a heart attack.  One year survival data conclusively found that those individuals who owned a dog were significantly less likely to have died in the one year duration of the study.  Given that most dog owners take their animal out for regular walks and hikes, it is not surprising that not only is the dog being exercised but so is the owner.  Interestingly, a positive benefit was not found for cat owners.  While one might initially suppose that owning a dog was related to differing physical characteristics of the patients than non-owners, such was not the case.  The dog owners were not found to be ‘healthier’ sick people at the beginning of the study and the positive benefit was found to be solely attributed to dog ownership.

In the April 2010 edition of the scientific journal Acta Medica Okayama, the authors investigated the effects of service dogs on health-related quality of life issues.   In the study, the researchers utilized a detailed survey that evaluated various health indicators of persons with significant disabilities such as spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis.  The experimental group lived with a therapy dog and those in the control group did not.  The results show that persons living with therapy animals have reduced physical and mental stresses and higher self esteem.

Susan Swartz writing for The Press Democrat interviewed health professionals who have found that dogs have become an essential part of their practice.  Dogs are now a key piece in fully engaging teens and war vets in counseling sessions where the animals act as conversation starters and safe surrogate companions.

Anxiety is a common emotion for persons entering a hospice.  For those that are mentally competent, they are fully aware that this is the last stop on the train of life.  Even those who hold devoutly religious beliefs, the knowledge that their life is rapidly coming to an end can induce fear and apprehension.  In my experience, the very act of entering a room with a palliative pet tends to normalize the environment, especially for a new resident.  The relief on the patients face and through their bodies is immediately evident and those that are comfortable with dogs very quickly engage with the animal before fully engaging with me, the dog’s leader who after all is just another stranger in this new strange environment.  The animal’s presence immediately elicits physical contact and calming repetitive stroking of the dog straight away precipitates a relaxed interaction.   Even for those patients with advanced dementia, palliative pets can generate positive responses.  In my experience physical contact with a dog can trigger some deep rooted reaction in an otherwise socially unresponsive dementia patient.  Whether this response is innate or memory-based is unclear but I have witnessed otherwise unengaged patients who have been physically challenging to care givers become calm and relaxed in the presence of and contact with a palliative pet.

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25 Sep

Even the most independent of outdoor working dogs enjoys a good scratch behind the ears from his owner/leader but a palliative pet must be willing to accept and enjoy a flood of affection from strangers.  Acceptance of continual petting, patting, stroking and hugging is the bread and butter of a palliative pet.  Further, given the mental and physical states of some hospice residents, over exuberant contact such as tugging, pinching and accidental pain from a wheel chair must not elicit a bite response.

Many outdoor working dogs have been bred for hunting, but even the best field dog has been trained to elicit its innate special character.  Young pointers are taught to point and retrievers are taught to retrieve.  Setters have been bred to have a natural proclivity to hunt birds and puppies which show excitement and interest in birds are described as being “birdy”.  Training setters to become effective hunting companions is often accomplished using domesticated fowl such as pigeons.

It is not surprising then that palliative pets can be trained to maximize their inner ‘care giver’ through ongoing training.  It is rare for humans to engage in intimate physical touch with strangers and so it is not too surprising that dogs commonly reflect this same aversion to unsolicited contact.  But just as humans overcome hesitance to touch through formal societal niceties such as handshakes, some dogs can be taught not only to accept physical contact with strangers but to seek it out.

Entering into the world of palliative care, a pet should come prepared with basic formal obedience training that is exhibited at the highest level of leader control.  Having to repeat commands to an animal is a clear sign that the leader does not have complete control over the pet and that more training is warranted.  Further, the palliative pet must be taught that there are no circumstances wherein a bite response is an acceptable behaviour.  Handling and gentling exercises especially those that eliminate nipping, scratching, clawing, kicking, growling, pawing, jumping up, and all forms of dominant behaviour should be the ongoing focus of palliative pet training.

It is a treat to come home from a long day at work and find the aroma of dinner wafting through the air.  The smell of garlic or the scent of baking bread or perhaps cinnamon rolls is a treat for the senses.  Humans can distinguish these different odours but imagine what the world is like for a dog.  A scent hound like a beagle has millions more scent receptors in their noses than do humans giving them an exquisitely sensitive sense of smell.  We have less than 2% of the number of scent receptors in our noses than does a blood hound and areas in dogs’ brains have evolved to put that exquisitely sensitive nose to good use.  For instance, dogs are now used in cancer detection.  Given this incredibly sensitive capacity for scent it is reasonable to assume that when a dog enters a hospice facility for the first time it is able to detect the unique smell of human bodies in a state of decline.  Further, it may be that although a dog has superior social skills that this new smell may trigger a reaction that initially limits the dog’s engagement with the dying.  Positive reinforcement and motivational training can be used to overcome such initial hesitation.  Negative reinforcement or punishing a dog for refusing to engage in social behaviours in a palliative care environment is contrary to obtaining the optimum outcome you seek.  Often a dog’s negative response to new situations is due to inappropriate or limited instruction.  Simply assuming a dog will respond the same way in all environments to all people is erroneous.

A dog that is not engaging normally in this new environment does not have “a behaviour problem”.  Nor should one think that when one is training the animal that one should be training solely to avoid “behaviour problems”.  Modern training methods rely on reinforcing positive responses.  For instance, rather than punishing a puppy for peeing on the carpet, modern training focuses on where the puppy should pee, reward him for peeing there, providing consistent positive support and guidance.  Within a short time the puppy will seek out the positive responses and ignore opportunities to pee on the carpet where there is no positive response given.  Urination is a normal body function and the only thing wrong about the location is a human imposed restriction that takes some time for an animal of limited intelligence to understand and then act upon accordingly – likewise for palliative social interactions.  Expectations of humans must be introduced to the dog in a positive way so that the animal enjoys the environment.  Reflecting back on parent directed childhood visits to a dull and unengaged relative it was not surprising that such interactions resulted in equally unengaged responses from myself and my siblings.  Regardless of the fact that people are dying in a hospice facility, it is vital that the leader make the environment enjoyable, supportive and engaging to the palliative pet as no amount of “correction” will instill the social responses the owner/leader is seeking.

Some breeds have only limited social behaviours encoded in their DNA and in such cases these animals have limited use as palliative pets.  Further, within breeds individual animals may be more or less suited for palliative environments.

The American Temperament Test Society, Inc. (ATTS) is a U.S. based not-for-profit organization founded in1977 that promotes uniform temperament evaluation of purebred and spayed/neutered mixed-breed dogs.  In pursuit of their motto “a sound mind in a sound body”, certified ATTS testers have evaluated more than 30,000 canines.  Upon successful completion of the pass/fail test, an animal is awarded certification. Many breeders utilize these evaluations as a fundamental tool in establishing their breed lines. The minimum age for the ATTS to evaluate a dog is 18 months.

If an owner/leader is wishing to select a puppy that when grown will be suitable for volunteering in palliative care environments, the process of determining suitability is less clear or rubust.  Given the ATTS age limit, pet owners/leaders must look elsewhere for guidance.

Jack and Wendy Volhard  are renowned for their expertise in assessing the conformation and behavior of canines.  With 13 books to their credit and numerous articles and videos based on a motivational-based training methodology they have created an effective and simple puppy evaluation tool.  The Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test for prospective owners is used to assess the following behaviours which then lead to an overall score.  Social Attraction, Following, Restraint, Social Dominance, Elevation, Retrieving, Touch Sensitivity,  Sound Sensitivity, Sight Sensitivity, Startle response to a strange object are the ten categories used and ranked by an unbiased party in a surrounding unfamiliar to the animal.  An owner wishing to select a puppy for palliative environments may find this or similar evaluation tools of use in the selection process.

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Alzheimer’s Disease and Palliative Pets

22 Sep

The American Psychiatric Association characterizes Alzheimer’s Disease as a progressive brain disorder that exhibits symptoms of cognitive impairment to memory, language, judgement and abstract reasoning.  On average, this life limiting disease results in a life expectancy following diagnosis of approximately seven years and is identified as the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.  In recent years medical professionals have seen a growing interest in the therapeutic effects of animal assisted therapy and activities.

A study published in “Companion Animals in Human Health (see References section)” by Kathryn Batson et al titled “The Effect of a Therapy Dog on Socialization and Physiological Indicators of Stress in Persons Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease” concluded that pets can serve as a useful intervention for increasing socialization in Alzheimer’s sufferers.  These researchers looked at the impact of a trained therapy dog, in this case a miniature schnauzer, on a variety of social interaction variables such as smiling, tactile contact, verbal praise, physical engagement as well as physiological factors such as heart rate and blood pressure.

The presence of the therapy dog enhanced nonverbal communication as shown by increases in looks, smiles, tactile contact and physical warmth.  The findings of the study support the advantages of short-term visits on the mental state and quality of life of person’s suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.  The results fit with similar research on the effects of pets on socialization of the elderly and suggest that the greater alertness of the research subjects suffering from profound impairment may activate a more basic form of communication and socialization than verbal interaction.

The study concludes that given the simplicity and ease with which pet interactions can be offered, such interventions can and should be woven into the fabric of care for Alzheimer’s patients.

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A Pet’s Nurturing Soul

8 Sep

A Pet’s Nurturing Soul – Where does it come from?

A palliative pet lies on a bed with a dying man and licks his hand and rests its head on his lap.  Is the dog feeling compassion?  Probably not.  Stanley Coren, the renowned psychologist at the University of British Columbia, explains in his new book “Do Dogs Dream? Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants to Know” that a dog’s range of emotion is roughly equivalent to that of a child at the age of two and a half years.  It is likely then that such a complex emotion as compassion is not within the scope of a palliative pet.  What dogs do feel beyond the basics of distress, contentment, disgust, fear and anger are the more complex emotions such as joy, suspicion and true affection.  Multifaceted emotions such as contempt, guilt and pride appear to be beyond the scope of a dog’s emotional spectrum.

So in the above scenario so familiar to hospice volunteers and staff, what are we witnessing?  Probably an extension of an innate nurturing quality.  A mother dog with her pups is finely tuned to signals of physical and emotional distress in members of her litter and as a member of a pack, a dog is by nature acutely aware of the status of the members of the pack.   As dogs themselves feel distress, it is not surprising then that they can pick up on the emotional states of persons at the end of life and recognize that these newly adopted members of their pack require nurturing.   Outside the structure of the pack the ability to pick up on emotional and physical distress of prey was key to successful predatory behaviour in their evolutionary history.  However within the pack, nurturing served to maintain the overall wellbeing of the group.

Are some dogs better suited emotionally for palliative care environments?  Coren describes research that clearly shows that personality (dogality?) testing on first generation puppies of crossbred Border Collies and Newfoundlands showed a blending of the personality types of the parents.  Newfoundlands are generally very social, calm and affectionate.  Border Collies are generally high energy, intense and focused on herding opportunities.  The emotional profile of the offspring of these parents showed that they were “more affectionate than their Border Collie father, but more intense and excitable than the Newfoundland mother.”  Clearly then, genetics play a major role in the emotional profile of dogs.  Hence animals bred for their sociable nature rather than guarding or fighting are on the whole more likely able to tap into the nurturing, affectionate, and loving nature so valued in palliative pets.

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