More than a furry friend
Highly trained therapy animals comfort some students
Finding solace in times of stress is something many students struggle with daily. But for Kate Londy, comfort can be found in a rather unique way.
Londy, an osteopathic medical student, finds that her cat offers her more than just companionship. She offers her major relief.
Jasmine, her one-year-old gray domestic long hair, is a certified therapy cat. Londy lives with lupus and arthritis and said Jasmine’s companionship has helped her cope with the stress of school in addition to the symptoms of her diseases.
Animal assisted therapy has proven to provide people with many health benefits. Studies have shown, according to Paula Scott, marketing coordinator at Pet Partners, that interacting with animals improves physical, psychological and social health.
Some benefits include:
Lowering blood pressure
Stronger immune system
Increased physical activity
Developing social skills of caring (by taking care of the animal)
Can bring back memories in Alzheimer’s patients
More information is available at petpartners.org
Londy has been involved with animals her entire life, beginning with family members and later getting involved with training service dogs for blind and disabled persons.
For Londy, petting her cat stretches the muscles in her hand, and Jasmine’s warm body temperature relaxes her joints. It was a no-brainer for her to adopt Jasmine to serve both as a companion and a therapeutic release.
The road to being a therapy animal is a difficult one, and only is reserved for animals of a calm temperament. Although they don’t provide the same care that service animals such as seeing-eye dogs can, many people like Londy are finding relief in their pets.
Pets as partners
Becoming a therapy animal demands them to be non-aggressive and requires them to submit to crucial training.
“It’s been proven that interacting with animals alleviates depression, decreases sensations of pain (and) basically takes their mind off their situation,” said Paula Scott, the marketing coordinator for Washington-based organization Pet Partners.
Pet Partners trains volunteer animals for therapy. Animals who “graduate” from therapy programs such as Pet Partners are able to perform community service in local hospitals, schools, libraries and prisons, Scott said.
Scott has advocated for animal-assisted therapy because of how it helps people with everything from stress to physical ailments.
Many people don’t know it, but there is a difference between service animals and therapy animals.
A major difference between service and therapy animals is their training. Although therapy animals have to be trained to keep calm, service animals are more intensively trained to the specific needs of the disabled owner.
“Service animals are very important to provide independence for people with disabilities,” she said. “Therapy animals and pets are very important to everyone for comfort and companionship, easing feelings of loneliness.”
Jasmine has provided Londy relief from her illnesses, even sensing when her owner is about to get a migraine.
“She preemptively sits in my lap, sometimes even before I’m having a migraine,” said Londy, who can then grab some Excedrin to hopefully prevent some of the pain.
Jasmine also assists Londy with motivation to get out of bed in the morning, which can be difficult because of her arthritis. Her extremities tend to get cold at night, making it more painful to get out of bed on a chilly winter morning. Jasmine provides encouragement, Londy said.
“I find that I am more relaxed when there’s an animal around. Whenever I was an undergrad and there were no animals…I got stressed out more easily, I had flares more frequently,” Londy said. “And then I would go home and there was the dogs and the family, my cat,” she said.
Sometimes animals are needed for more than just therapy. For journalism senior Nick Vanderwall, his golden labrador Toby isn’t just a dog — he’s his eyes.
Animals like Toby provide freedom to persons with disabilities. Vanderwall’s Seeing Eye dog has helped him tremendously with navigating MSU’s enormous campus, he said.
After an accident when he was just 12 years old, Vanderwall lost his eyesight and has had to learn how to cope and adjust to life without it. Before Toby, he used a cane for navigation.
“He helps me walk around, find doors and find classes,” Vanderwall said. “He definitely made me get more active, walking wise.”
Vanderwall said many people ask if they can pet Toby, but when Toby wears his harness, he is at work. At home, the harness comes off and he gets to be “normal.”
Vanderwall said Toby also has helped him to be more social.
“I mean, everybody loves a dog,” he said. “When they see a dog, they want to strike up a conversation with you. (And) he’s just amazing because of all the things he knows to do and everything.”
MSU has seen the benefits therapy animals can bring to stressed-out students. A new program allows medical students to take a study break to play with dogs during final exams.
Laura Bennett, the assistant director of student counseling and wellness at the Grand Rapids extension of MSU, organized the study break with West Michigan Therapy Dogs, a nonprofit volunteer organization.
“The real idea initially came from my daughter,” Bennett said. Her daughter, a U-M graduate, said the university was developing a program with dogs, which piqued her interest and inspired her to start a similar program at MSU.
MSU’s health and wellness team was looking for ways to help students de-stress, said Bennett. Bennett worked with Judith Brady, the director of student counseling and wellness on the East Lansing campus, to make sure the program would be available on both campuses.
Bennett said that the medical students really enjoyed spending time with the dogs, with some even claiming that it was “the best time they had in medical school.”
“They would take time to visit the dogs where they wouldn’t take time to eat,” she said.
She was unsure of whether or not the program was available to all students, but at the Grand Rapids campus, the focus was on the medical students specifically.
“They really are interested in working with future physicians,” Bennett said. “They’re hoping to help them understand that dogs can be a part of a clinical practice,” she said.
The unfortunate thing about the Lansing area, said Bennett, is the fact that there are aren’t many nearby organizations supporting animal therapy programs.
But students like Londy are willing to try and provide relief to students who need it.
Currently, Londy and her cat Jasmine work on a volunteer basis with the RCPD in creating a program interacting therapy animals with students. Although there is no funding yet, Londy said that she thinks it’s important and hopefully, some years down the road, this type of therapy will be available to students who need it.