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January 9, 2013
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Therapeutic pets: Furry friends good for the body and mind

Bob the cat patiently allows 89-year-old Lois Prince, a resident at Callahan Court Memory Care, to poke and pat him, tug his tail and pick him up.

The long-haired black tomcat doesn’t even object to being referred to as “she.”

“She’s a good girl. Are you Mama’s kitty?” Prince asked as she hugged her furry friend.

Callahan Director Kim Jordan said Bob, a former stray, is much loved by many Callahan residents, but Prince is especially fond of Bob. That may be good for her health.

Studies show having a pet can calm Alzheimer’s patients, reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and even change a person’s vital signs, lowering heart rate and blood pressure. That’s why some Roseburg medical professionals say they encourage their patients to get pets. It’s also why pets are allowed to visit patients at Mercy Medical Center and why pet cats curl up with residents of care centers like Callahan and Emeritus Manor House in Roseburg.

Jordan said Bob became a community pet at Callahan after a former resident’s daughter found him in the facility’s parking lot in 2004. The woman’s mother was dying and she said she felt better after holding the cat. Jordan recalled the staff was initially reluctant to take on the scruffy stray, but when the woman returned a few days later after cleaning, feeding and getting shots for the cat, they agreed.

Jordan said Bob spent his early days at the center lying on the beds of patients nearing the end of their lives. He quickly gained a reputation for knowing which patients would soon need hospice care. These days, he exhibits no such sixth sense. He hops from bed to bed at Callahan, welcome everywhere.

“Everybody loves Bob,” Jordan said.

Jordan relates that one patient with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease was unable to communicate or even make eye contact but she noticed Bob.

“There was nothing there. The lights weren’t on. They put Bob in her lap and she started petting him,” Jordan said.

In addition to soothing Alzheimer’s patients, pets are also helpful for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I think we really underestimate animals,” said Darci Moody, nurse case manager for the VA Roseburg Healthcare System.

Moody works with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and recommends her patients get pets.

“There is another living being, with a warm heartbeat that’s with them and that’s hoping to see them come through the door,” Moody said.

Every member of a support group Moody runs for PTSD patients has either a dog, cat or bunny, she said.

Moody said she recalled one member received a dachshund as a gift from his wife while he was recovering from surgery and at home by himself a lot.

At first, she said, he did not want anything to do with the dog. The dog felt differently.

“It loved him and kept jumping on his lap. If he got up when he came back, it was waiting for him on his seat,” Moody said.

Eventually the dog won him over, Moody said. The veteran now has three dogs and his experiences influenced the other members of his group.

“They all have a pet now. It started with one and then gradually the others started getting pets,” Moody said.

Scott Mendelson, lead psychiatrist at the Roseburg VA and the owner of an Australian shepherd, also approves of pet therapy.

“I have often suggested a dog or cat to patients, particularly when they live alone and isolate themselves. The companionship is therapeutic, and the sense of ‘feeling needed’ is important as well. Having another living, feeling creature to take care of is as important as the companionship,” Mendelson said.

Radiation oncologist Randy Moore of the Community Cancer Center in Roseburg said doctors at the center occasionally write notes for their patients, encouraging their landlords to allow pets. Moore said pets can help calm patients suffering from chronic illness and even improve vital signs.

Some animals can provide more than just companionship.

Service animals, best known for their work aiding the blind and others with physical disabilities, can also be trained to assist PTSD patients, Moody said.

A PTSD sufferer who experiences anxiety when people come too close can train a dog to block or signal a person’s approach. A dog can even be trained to search a patient’s home and return to signal the owner that it is safe to enter, Moody said.

She is so convinced of the healing power of pets that she hopes to include a pet adoption when Roseburg hosts a welcome home event for veterans of all eras this summer.

Wendy Kang, director of Saving Grace Pet Adoption Center in Winchester, said the shelter adopts out about 1,000 animals each year. About half are cats and half are dogs.

“We hear a lot of stories of people just telling us what joy their pets bring them,” Kang said. “Pets are nonjudgmental. Whatever is going on with you, pets are the first ones that are just going to be glad you’re there.”

Kang said dogs can be particularly helpful for people who need more exercise.

“If you’re walking with a friend, they might let you off the hook. Better than that is walking your dog because he probably won’t let you off the hook the way your human friend does,” Kang said.

Some people may also benefit from volunteering at Saving Grace, Kang said.

Residents of Callahan and Emeritus Manor House memory care centers create treats for the shelter’s dogs.

Sandy Montgomery, program manager at Emeritus Manor House, said volunteering to help animals gives residents a sense of purpose.

“Our seniors have had a lot of losses. They’ve lost their health. They’ve lost their independence. This is a way they can give back. They know they’re making a difference in the dog’s life,” Montgomery said

As at Callahan, Alzheimer’s patients at Emeritus also benefit from the presence of pets. The center has three pet cats and Director Sarah Calvert said her golden retriever is a frequent and popular visitor.

Jordan said the love of animals is one thing many Alzheimer’s patients retain after other memories have gone.

“That’s deep rooted. You don’t ever lose that,” Jordan said.

• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or ccegavske@nrtoday.com.

We hear a lot of stories of people just telling us what a joy their pets bring them.

Wendy Kang
Saving Grace Pet  Adoption Center


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The News-Review Updated Feb 4, 2013 01:35PM Published Jan 11, 2013 10:40AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.