For those patients who are at the point of hospice care, the focus for their care has moved to making them as comfortable as possible to live out their last days. Studies have proven that simply petting an animal can help reduce stress and high blood pressure, so AAA (animal assisted activities) and AAT (animal assisted therapy) are becoming an important facet of palliative care.
There is a difference between AAA and AAT; AAA is often provided by volunteers who have registered therapy animals and serve to improve patient quality of life through human-animal interaction. AAT is generally provided by paid, qualified individuals and it is used to help achieve therapy-based goals.
In hospice settings where social workers use animal partners (usually dogs) they report that the animals assist with socialization and supportive listening for patients. In some cases, AAT trained dogs are used as a part of symptom management. Previous studies have shown that pet therapy may assist with symptom management, with patients in a children’s hospital reporting that contact with the animals distracted them from pain, brought feelings of pleasure or happiness, had a calming effect and lowered their perception of pain (Sobo, Eng & Kassity-Krich – 2006).
Within hospices, it is important that the AAT handlers have training that is specific to the hospice setting, including handling of the animal and interaction with patients who are often very frail. The overall response when trained practitioners are sent into hospices has been very positive though, with patients reporting that the animals provided them with some level of comfort. Often hospice patients have had animals at home and enjoy the chance to connect with a pet. Having to leave behind a pet at home can leave patients feeling depressed and lonely so the chance to interact with animals in hospice care can bring a smile to their faces. Patients also often associate pets with positive past experiences and even those with dementia can feel positive validation through contact with a pet.
For those undergoing therapy, it has been found that contact with a therapy animal is very helpful in encouraging patients to open up more to their therapists. Families of patients have reported their loved-ones looking forward to therapy sessions and developing a special bond with both therapist and animal.
Hospices also report that for patients who are nearing death, contact with a therapy animal can help to soothe agitation and bring some comfort.
For those who are dying and for their loved-ones who will be left behind, pet therapy has been found to greatly help with the grief process. They can help with grief in dying patients by providing some sense of control while giving commands, and for the families, the animals can be a source of comfort.
Pet therapy is proving to be increasingly useful as a part of hospice care. Sometimes it is easier for people to relate to an animal than another human, and the animals are a great source of comfort. It is expected pet therapy will become a more widely used practice.