(NEW YORK) — Dogs once cornered the market on being therapy pets, but now bunnies, pigs — even llamas — are making their way into the laps and hearts of people with a range of conditions. But experts say some animals are more therapeutic than others.
“While we know that a wide variety of animals can be wonderful companions or pets, not every animal is suited to therapy work,” said Glen Miller, a spokesman for Pet Partners, a national nonprofit organization that trains and registers therapy animals.
Therapy pets can include “dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, rats, miniature pigs, llamas, alpacas, horses, donkeys and mini-horses,” as long as they’re at least a year old and have lived with their owner for six months, according to Pet Partners. Though the organization registers “birds,” it does not register ducks, Miller said.
Pet Partners does not allow exotic or wild animals, either.
“We know many people have wonderful experiences with these animals as pets, but without research documenting their behavior over time, we cannot evaluate their predictability and reaction to stress,” the organization’s website reads.
Unlike service animals, therapy animals don’t help their owners perform tasks and are therefore not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Though there are no national requirements to register therapy animals, most hospitals only allow ones that have been trained, aren’t easily stressed and are covered by an insurance policy.
Read about some traditional and not-so-traditional bedside creatures below:
Darin Welker’s village in Ohio banned residents from keeping fowl in 2010, but the former member of the National Guard insists that his 14 ducks are therapy animals. They motivate him to get out of the house to take care of them, he said.
“They’re quite a relaxing animal, and they help comfort me in different situations,” Welker told the Conshohocken Tribune, holding one of the ducks like a baby. “[Watching them] keeps you entertained for hours at a time.”
Welker served in Iraq in 2005 and returned home with a back injury that required surgery as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, according to the Tribune. He’s had the ducks in his fenced-in yard since March and will argue his case for keeping them Wednesday or face a $150 fine.
Nutmeg and Clovis are the 4-and-a-half-year-old therapy bunnies that live on the 13th floor of NYU Langone Medical Center.
“We’ve seen patients that literally had no affect smile,” said Gwenn Fried, manager of horticultural therapy services at NYU Langone. “Their whole demeanor changes.”
Sometimes doctors recommend the rabbits, and sometimes, the patients ask to see them, Fried said.
There’s nothing like a “kiss” — basically a soft, furry lip bump — from a 300-pound llama to brighten your mood.
Lori Gregory volunteers her llama, Rojo, through MTN Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, taking him to visit hospice patients and children who have mental and emotional problems.
“He has eyes the size of golf balls,” said Gregory, 57, of Vancouver, Washington. “People just stand there and look into their eyes. It’s pretty wonderful to be able to do that with a large animal that doesn’t ask anything.”
Though she can’t personally detect a change in the patients Rojo meets, she said nurses often tell her their most introverted patients become animated around the llamas.
Dogs are the only type of therapy animal allowed to see patients at the Mayo Clinic, according to the Rochester, Minnesota hospital’s animal therapy coordinator, Jessica Borg. She said dogs attend group sessions and sometimes meet one-on-one with patients.
“Having the dog there almost takes the tension out of the room,” she said. “It’s pretty common that patients will tear up because they’re so excited, so thankful for getting five or 25 minutes of time just snuggling, hanging out with the pet.”
Borg said some patients who are unwilling to get out of bed for physical therapy jump up when she’s walking by with a dog, eager for a cuddle.
“Seeing the dog and being with the dog can change their spirits within five seconds of contact time,” she said.
Five golden retrievers were a big help after the Boston Marathon bombings last year, when they visited victims in nearby hospitals as well as shaken residents on the streets. The pups were part of Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dogs, which has 60 dogs that travel the country to help patients in need.
Former Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Lyndon Ortiz helped start a veteran’s program Heavenly Hooves, a volunteer group that provides equine-assisted therapy.
Ortiz, who suffered from PTSD after being hit with an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2005, started as a volunteer for the group and encouraged fellow veterans to join him. He said it helped him get back to civilian life as he wanted to live it.
“I’ve seen hope in some of the guys,” Ortiz said. “Some of them were stuck at home not doing anything just stuck in those four walls and now they look forward for Tuesdays when they’re riding horses.”
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