September 17, 2007

Pets Relieve Emotional Stress

Print More

What’s warm and fuzzy, loyal and obedient, playful and fun and scientifically proven to reduce stress? Pets. In recent decades, interactions with domesticated animals have been used in therapy sessions to promote psychological and medical benefits in humans, such as reducing blood pressure and anxiety. For over a decade, Cornell Companions, a pet visitation program funded by Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been linking pets and their owners with various facilities in Tompkins County in order to create an opportunity for the community to experience the wide ranging benefits of human-animal interaction.
“Cornell Companions was started as a way for vet students to get more hands on experience with animals. But it blossomed into something much bigger. We provide a community service that’s based on the animal-human bond,” said Robin Hamlisch, director of Cornell Companions.
According to the Cornell Companions website, the human-animal bond is a connection between people and animals centered around the idea that “the affection provided by an animal is simple, unconditional, and uncomplicated,” and animals’ “comforting and healing qualities enable them to be facilitators in therapy.”
13 facilities in Tompkins County participate regularly in Cornell Companions’ pet visitation program, including Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, Cayuga Medical Center, local nursing homes and correctional facilities for adolescents.
Approximately 250 volunteers and their pets from the Cornell and Ithaca communities form 13 teams that visit the facilities on a bi-monthly basis.
According to Hamlisch, the animal visitations achieve different goals in each setting.
At a mental health unit, patients diagnosed with depression are treated by stroking the animals and playing with them.
Alzheimer’s patients work on improving their memory skills through interaction with the animals, and often recall the names of the animals from visit to visit. The animals also help with behavioral targets of developmentally disabled children.
“My favorite memory of Cornell Companions is the story of a little girl who never spoke,” Hamlisch said. “For over a year she had been visiting with a dog through Cornell Companions, and finally, one day she spoke her first word, ‘Pepper.’ It was the dog’s name.”
Cornell Companions does not discriminate as to which animals can participate in the program. Although dogs and cats overwhelmingly populate the mixture, llamas, snakes, camels, ferrets, guinea pigs and rabbits are some of the more interesting animals involved.
No matter the species, each owner and pet must complete training and screening sessions.
Owners learn the benefits of the human-animal bond, and animals are taught important interaction techniques.
According to Hamlisch, volunteers attend two training sessions over the course of two weeks that total six hours.
The volunteers are taught communication skills, mental health sensitivity, guidelines on approaching the physically challenged, and confidentiality rules.
During a 15-minute screening process, the animal and its owner rotate around different stations that recreate a visitation setting. The pet’s temperament, activity level and personality are evaluated while owners provide their pet’s up to date medical history and vaccinations.