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  2. What Is Hospice Pet Therapy?

What Is Hospice Pet Therapy?

What Is Hospice Pet Therapy?

What Is Hospice Pet Therapy?

Pets have a longstanding history of providing faithful companionship and showing unconditional love for the humans in their lives. This companionship and love creates a powerful emotional bond between animal and human. The bonds that humans share with pets result in very positive effects: reduced anxiety and stress, increased feelings of relaxation, and an overall improved outlook on life. In seeking to provide patients with the best end-of-life care possible, many hospice organizations employ the use of animal companionship as a form of therapy. Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, in the hospice setting uses the natural bond between humans and animals to provide comfort, peace, and soothing companionship to terminally ill patients.

The History of Pet Therapy

The first use of animals in a therapeutic setting dates back to the 1800s. Florence Nightingale observed that children and adults in psychiatric wards, when given the companionship of small animals, experienced greatly reduced levels of anxiety and stress. Her findings inspired others to employ the use of animals in therapeutic settings as a means of providing comfort and relaxation to patients.

Hospice pet therapy, using the longstanding bond between humans and animals, brings joy, humor, unconditional love, and soothing companionship to those on the end-of-life journey.

While Nightingale’s findings opened the door to the use of animals in a therapeutic setting, the work of Boris Levinson, regarded as the father of pet therapy, brought the use of pet therapy to the attention of the international medical community. Levinson, a renowned child psychotherapist, discovered that the presence of his dog had a remarkable effect on helping his young patients communicate. By Levinson’s dog simply being present, the children began to engage in more open dialog during therapy sessions. Levinson’s findings and continued study paved the way for further research into the impact of animals’ involvement in therapy and laid the foundations for the modern practice of pet therapy.

How Animals Interact with Hospice Patients during Visits

Visitation between patients and animals promotes activity, conversation, and emotional connection. Often, simply the presence of the animal is all that is required to promote the positive effects; however, patients, caregivers, and family can interact with the pet therapy animals as they would with most any pet:

  • Tossing a ball or toy for the animal to fetch

  • Quietly enjoying the presence of the animal in silence

  • Talking to, petting, hugging, holding, or cuddling with the animal

  • Enjoying playful animal tricks and commands such as sitting, rolling over, or shaking hands

Physical Benefits of Hospice Pet Therapy

The close companionship of animals provides a relaxing and understanding presence to those on the end-of-life journey. Enjoying the presence and interacting with animals yields a host of physical benefits for patients:

  • Helps reduce physical pain

  • Reduces blood pressure

  • Promotes an improved heart rate and total cardiovascular health

  • Increased levels of overall comfort

Hospice pet therapy programs also have a significant impact on the overall range of motion and bodily strength of patients. Active movement can often be neglected, especially in older patients; however, pet therapy visits promote motion and activity as hospice patients play, cuddle, pet, and interact with their animal companion.

Social and Emotional Benefits of Hospice Pet Therapy

Animals also have a profound, measured impact on the social and emotional well-being of patients. The soothing presence and unconditional affection of an animal provides:

  • Reduced feelings of loneliness

  • Reduced feelings of depression

  • Lower levels of anxiety

  • Improved overall outlook on life and circumstances

These effects are particularly noticeable in patients with dementia. According to a 2013 study, dementia patients, over a 10-week period of pet therapy, experienced a slowing in the progression of dementia-related symptoms, including agitation, aggression, and depression. The presence of animals also elicited a higher response rate from patients, signaling that pet therapy may also help slow the degradation of verbal skills brought about by the disease.

Animal Species Used in Hospice Pet Therapy

Some patients may have allergic reactions to certain animals species; however, pet therapy allows for all patients, regardless of allergies or other restrictions, to enjoy the company and affection of compassionate animals. While dogs comprise the majority of the animals in pet therapy programs, there is a wide array of species employed in providing comfort and companionship to hospice patients.

Pet therapy dogs are loving, compassionate, and can read subtle emotional cues


By far the most popular choice for pet therapy, dogs are universally enjoyed by hospice patients for their loving, compassionate presence and ability to read subtle emotional and physical cues from humans.

Pet therapy pigs can be a great alternative for patients with allergies or had a previous frightening experience with dogs or cats


An alternative to those allergic to dogs or cats, pigs are a calm, affectionate, and intelligent animal companion. Pigs also are a viable alternative for patients who have had frightening past experiences with cats or dogs.

Pet therapy rabbits can be a hypoallergenic alternative to other fluffy animals


For patients who may be allergic to cats or dogs and desire a small, fluffy animal in their lap, rabbits are a perfect choice. Pet therapy rabbits provide patients with a calm, silent, and adorable companion.

Pet therapy cats are the most requested pet therapy animals and can be quiet and loving


Cats can provide a quiet, loving presence and promote a profound emotional connection with patients. Cats are among the most requested pet therapy species, ranking second only to dogs.

Pet therapy horses can be calm and quiet companions


A very popular option for hospice organizations involved with pet therapy, horses, particularly miniature horses, are ideal for providing patients with a kind, calm, and quiet companion that facilitates communication and bonding.

Pet therapy birds can bring cheer, laughter, and enjoyment to patients


Birds can be a fun and uniquely entertaining animal companion. While often requiring a great deal of training before being ready to serve, the cheerful and bright disposition of birds can bring laughter and enjoyment to patients, caregivers, and families.

Getting Involved in Hospice Pet Therapy

Hospice organizations recognize the tremendous positive impact that pet therapy provides patients. Those interested in volunteering in hospice pet therapy should first contact local hospice organizations and learn the requirements for involvement with their pet therapy programs. While each hospice organization may differ in its requirements, most hospices mandate that animals and handlers be certified in pet therapy. Obtaining certification will ensure that both handler and animal have proper training and are fully prepared to interact with patients, caregivers, and families.

Pet therapy organizations offer courses that allow handlers and their pets to obtain pet therapy certification. These organizations have strict criteria for prospective therapy pets to ensure the utmost safety for the patients that the animals will visit. Common requirements for pet therapy animals include:

  • Being effectively house trained

  • Having no history of aggressive behavior and welcome human interaction

  • Displaying obedience to commands such as “sit,” “stay”, and “come.”

  • Having all appropriate and up-to-date vaccinations

  • Being of a certain age depending on species

Handlers must also demonstrate the ability to conduct a safe, therapeutic, and comfortable patient visit. An effective handler:

  • Is mindful of the animal’s safety at all times

  • Positively reinforces the animal’s appropriate social interactions with patients

  • Is keenly aware of the animal’s body language cues that signal anxiety, stress, or exhaustion

  • Provides comfortable, casual conversation with patients, caregivers, and family members

  • Politely guides others in how to best interact with the animal

  • Demonstrates a high level of calm control over the animal

By obtaining certification and undergoing the proper training, handlers and their pets can confidently provide patients, caregivers, and families with a safe, soothing, and therapeutic environment.

The Power of Hospice Pet Therapy

Hospice pet therapy is so much more than a simple visit with an animal. Animals and their handlers have the unique ability to bring transformative joy and comfort during a time when a patient’s outlook on life may be at its most grim. Hospice pet therapy, using the longstanding bond between humans and animals, brings joy, humor, unconditional love, and soothing companionship to those on the end-of-life journey.


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