To most men and women, this Wednesday is just another day of the week. But to man’s (and woman’s) best friend, it’s a pretty big deal. Because Wednesday, April 11, is National Pet Day.
Now don’t be ashamed if you didn’t know that tidbit of information. After all, it has only been an official “Day” for about a dozen years – barely a blink of an eye compared to how long we humans have been keeping domesticated animals as pets. Actually, no one really knows when people began “owning” pets. Evidence suggests that it could be as long as 12,000 years ago or all the way back to the Garden of Eden. (More on that later.)
But one thing is for sure. Folks in the health care field have been aware of the benefits of “pet therapy” for at least 150 years. In fact, in 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote that a pet “is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.”
These days, there’s no denying the value of pet therapy at Sunshine Retirement communities. Several of them – including Creekside Oaks in Folsom, California; The Gardens at Brook Ridge in Pharr, Texas; Heritage Point in Mishawaka, Indiana; Deer Park in Novato, California; and Dunwoody Pines in Dunwoody, Georgia – have regular Pet Therapy sessions. And we’re not just talking about just the usual assortment of canine companions. Both Creekside Oaks and The Gardens have hosted cuddly bunnies within the past few weeks. And Dunwoody Pines is welcoming a beautiful and talkative parrot.
“The rabbit belongs to Marisa our business office manager,” says Curtis Ligon, Life Enhancement Director at Creekside Oaks. “The residents love it when we have a pet that comes in to visit. It's a huge deal for them.”
Not only does it just feel good for residents to be around pets, emerging studies show that pet therapy translates to many positive health benefits – physical as well as emotional – such as:
As positive as those outcomes may be, in the eyes of some people, the benefits of interacting with four-legged (and sometimes two-legged) visitors go even deeper. For example, Dr. Jerilyn Felton a resident of Summerfield Estates in Tigard, Oregon sees a more spiritual relationship between God and the dog.
“There has been a story circulating the internet for many years,” she says. “The focus is that because God loved his creation (Man), he wanted to have some physical representation of His love for human beings present with Adam at all times. So God created Dog and said, ‘because I have created this new animal to be a reflection of my love for you, its name will be a reflection of my own name, and you will call him DOG.’”
Dr. Felton founded the “Four-Footed Ministers Pastoral-Care Program” in 2012 to use dogs in helping others connect with their spirituality. She frequently brought her White Lab named Alya to visit residents in local retirement and nursing homes. Each week they would meet and interact with people in both group settings and individually. Together they would pray, share scriptural readings, and take time for reflection and discussion, closely listening to the residents’ deepest concerns and needs. They would always conclude with an uplifting send-off to encourage the participants to spread joy in the community.
Since Alya passed away in 2014, Dr. Felton no longer maintains the Four-Footed Ministers program visits, yet she still supports the emerging perspective that views all creation as the manifestation of God’s tremendous love and believes that in this day and age, dog ministry is needed now more than ever.
“Operating from within the Four-Footed Ministers Pastoral-Care Program, the spiritual benefits can be realized,” she says. “And most importantly, the one in need of care receives spiritual and physical affirmation of God’s love.”
Of course, not every resident in our pet therapy programs wishes to have some sort of spiritual interaction with a pet. But if all participants walk away with smiles on their faces and wagging tails, we’re definitely not barking up the wrong tree.
*This blog was first published here: Sunshine Retirement Living, April, 2018.