November 20, 2003

Vet Speaks on Animal Therapy

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Caroline B. Schaffer, DVM, spoke last Tuesday to members of Cornell Companions and others in the Cornell community. Cornell Companions is a pet visitation program that offers individuals with special needs access to trained animals for therapeutic and recreational activities.

Schaffer gave a lecture on animal-assisted therapy and the veterinarian’s role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She is the director of the Center for the Study of Human-Animal Interdependent Relationships at the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama.

Schaffer spoke first about innovative training methods for animals involved in therapy and activities for special-needs individuals.

“The trick is finding out which animals can work their magic and then being sure we look out for the well-being of the animals as well as the people the animals are with,” she said.

In her talk on animal-assisted activities, Schaffer explained the examination that she helped design, the Tuskegee Behavior Test for Selecting Therapy Dogs, which places dogs in a series of scenarios in order to assess their ability to function in a healthcare or rehabilitative environment.

Nona Ikeda ’05, Cornell Companions project coordinator, found Dr. Schaffer’s examination to be very comprehensive and appropriate.

“Her screening process is much more thorough than [Cornell Companions’] screening process,” she said. “We are definitely going to be able to apply what we learned from Dr. Schaffer to our activities in the community.”

Dr. Schaffer also spoke about the veterinarian’s role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and how animals can play a vital role in the life of a person with an illness. Individuals with HIV, and others who have suppressed immune systems, are less able to fight off diseases that are sometimes found in pets. Dr. Schaffer, however, does not believe that this should deter people from keeping their pets, as is suggested by some health care professionals.

“Clearly, many myths and misconceptions still need to be dispelled,” Schaffer said. “I believe that healthcare providers should stop saying, ‘If you are immunosuppressed, get rid of your pet,’ and say instead, ‘If you are immunosuppressed and want a pet, see your vet.'”

Schaffer provided evidence that the risk of contracting illnesses through pets is highly unlikely, and that the potential benefits of owning a pet far outweigh the potential risks for most people who are living with a medical condition.

“I know that too many people that are still giving up their pets at a time when they need the companionship, physical contact and emotional support of a pet who is healthy and behaviorally appropriate to their abilities and needs,” she said.

Dr. Schaffer co-authored a brochure entitled “HIV/AIDS and Pet Ownership,” which has been distributed to thousands of individuals and organizations. She has been honored for her work by the American Veterinary Medical Association and its partners, who awarded her the Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award in 2000. Her expertise provided Cornell Companions and other audience members with a new perspective on animal-assisted therapy, as well as the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“I think she’s very informative, and she definitely knows a lot about her field,” Ikeda said.

Archived article by Andrew Beckwith