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Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Seniors benefiting from animal therapy

Staff writer

No words are exchanged, but just staring into their big round eyes and patting their furry heads is enough to brighten the mood.

News photo
A japanese Animal Hospital Association volunteer visits a nursing home in Tokyo with a dog as part of its animal therapy program. PHOTO COURTESY OF JAPANESE ANIMAL HOSPITAL ASSOCIATION

It was an enjoyable day for seniors at Enomoto Clinic in Tokyo's Toshima Ward when Japanese Animal Hospital Association volunteers visited at the end of January for the Companion Animal Partnership Program, commonly known as animal therapy.

About eight volunteers with four dogs and two cats were welcomed by the members of the clinic's "silver floor." The volunteers provided recreational activities for the seniors as part of the program.

"Come here, come here!" many seniors excitedly beckoned as the volunteers, clad in blue T-shirts, introduced a toy poodle, a papillon and a miniature pinscher to a group of elderly patients seated in a circle.

The friendly dogs greeted the seniors by shaking paws and hopping onto their laps when the volunteers let them do so.

"Wow, you are very smart," a senior said, petting one of the dogs.

Things got even livelier when the dogs did tricks, including beating a tambourine and picking up a beanbag.

The session made the seniors smile and received positive feedback.

"It really soothed my mind," one senior said.

"I really looked forward to this," another said. "I think animals understand human feelings better than humans do."

Animal therapy has gradually taken root in Japan over the past 20 years thanks to its motivational effects and to the perceived benefits it has on people's physical and emotional well-being. It has also been used to improve children's education.

Now groups like JAHA are volunteering at schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

Veterinarian Hiroko Shibanai, a former president of JAHA, said animal therapy, mainly via animal-assisted activities, has gained broad recognition in Japan.

When JAHA started the program in 1986, it had 210 volunteers and visited seven facilities. By 2006 it had gathered 6,213 volunteers and visited 190 facilities.

"We now get a lot of requests from many facilities," said Shibanai, currently an adviser of JAHA, a government-approved organization.

Animal therapy is practiced by scores of organizations. There are vocational schools to nurture social workers and pet-related workers also offer activities in their programs as well.

In some cases, such activities get local government subsidies. The Health and Welfare Center in Minami Ward, Yokohama, has been supporting volunteer animal-assisted activities for about 10 years.

Shibanai said Nagano Prefecture and the city of Sendai also support animal therapy.

Mitsuaki Ota, a professor of veterinary science at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, who oversees its Laboratory of Effective Animals for Human Health, said animal therapy in Japan is mainly supported by volunteers and does not get the professional medical attention it deserves.

Studies in the U.S. show that seniors who live with pets make fewer hospital visits and take less drugs than those who do not. This means having pets can reduce health-care costs, Shibanai said.

Having pets is also said to contribute to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, studies show.

"For instance, doctors in the U.S. recommend to patients that they have pets because they recognize that animals contribute to humans' well-being," Ota said. "But this doesn't happen in Japan."

From that perspective, he said, animal therapy has not yet become commonplace here. Shibanai of JAHA agreed, saying awareness has to be raised among medical professionals.

Because animal therapy is not covered by the public health-care insurance, medical professionals do not actively encourage it, Ota reckoned.

While volunteer efforts have enlarged the circle of animal-assisted activities, Akira Uchiyama, JAHA's secretary general, noted the animals must be properly handled to avoid accidents.

JAHA sets safety guidelines for volunteers and their animals when they participate in the activities.

Under the guidelines, animals have to be owned by the volunteers participating in the activities and have suitable personalities for the program, such as being able to interact in a friendly manner with people other than their owners as well as with other pets.

The animals used in JAHA's program are generally dogs, cats and rabbits. Birds and hamsters can also be included but have to stay caged.

The guidelines also state the pets have to undergo periodic medical checks and be cleaned carefully before taking part in any activities.

JAHA is insured for accidents during the visits, but has never experienced a mishap since its start more than two decades ago, the group said.

Uchiyama said accidents could set back the efforts that have been made by many over the years to spread animal therapy.

To get more recognition for animal therapy, Ota of Azabu University said animal therapy activists and organizations should collect data and results of the activities with the involvement of doctors and report them to the government.

JAHA actually started collecting data on the effects of the therapy in 2006, with a subsidy from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The data from 2006 included tallies of smiles, eye contact, petting and length of interaction with the pets over a certain period of time.

"Many people do recognize the positive effects of animal therapy, but it needs to have results collected through a scientific method" to get animal therapy implemented on a wider scale, including at medical institutions, Uchiyama said.

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