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Rainy and I dropped in on a patient who I’d been told was missing her cat. She held and petted Rainy as we talked about our pets. When the time came for us to leave, she looked up from her hospital bed, and with a big smile said, “You made my day!”

Pet therapy teams bring happiness to people in need. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough teams to meet the demand.

Shaundra Montague, a State of Nebraska certified activities director and dementia practitioner, said that she’d like to increase the number of therapy pet visits at her Lincoln retirement community. “Right now, I’m at about once a week. My residents would love more.”

Jillian Harold, a hospice volunteer coordinator, said that pet therapy teams provide comfort, peace and soothing companionship for patients at her senior care community who are on their end of life journey.

“Many of our clients or their family members request therapy pets because they once had pets but are unable to care for a pet full time and miss that bond with them,” Harold said.

Therapy pets can provide a number of physical benefits to recipients: increased happy endorphins, decreased blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health and reduced pain. Mental benefits include: increased communication, socialization and comfort, and reduced isolation, alienation, depression and anxiety.

At the facilities where Montague and Harold work, a variety of therapy pets are welcome.

“Any pet could be a therapy pet,” said Montague. “The residents love to learn about the animals. We have a bearded dragon that sometimes visits, and they love her!”

Harold also pointed out that some clients have allergies or other restrictions, and being able to offer them visits from other kinds of animals is important.

To serve as a therapy pet, a pet must be fully vetted. Vaccinations must be up to date. Health records and proof of pet therapy certification are required.

The certification process varies by organization. The most important criteria are that the pet is friendly and calm, will wear a harness and leash, and enjoys meeting new people and visiting new places.

Montague emphasized that the human handlers are just as important as their pets. “Yes, the pets get loved on, but the conversations and bonds are also real. My residents like to get to know the handlers and chat about everything.”

During a recent pet therapy outing, a woman clasped my hand and told me she looked forward to our visits. The feeling was mutual. I squeezed her hand and promised to return.

If you’d like to team with your pet to bring happiness to people in need, contact me at allisontalkspets@gmail.com. The need is great, and the rewards are immeasurable.

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