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Therapy animals work magic for vulnerable people

Jun 07, 2018 12:30PM
By Deborah Goodman

Debbie Carr, executive director of Therapy Animals of Utah, based in Provo, visited a memory care unit in a nursing home in May. When the rest of the residents left the room to eat a meal, one woman kept Debbie’s hairless Sphynx cat, Shen, on her lap, petting him and singing to him. Later, a therapist from the nursing home told Carr, “I’ve never seen (the resident) smiling so much.”

Moments like these are what keep Carr doing what she’s been doing for the past 28 years: training and working with therapy animals to assist what’s grown into a network of 86 therapy animal teams serving 60 facilities from Logan to Santaquin.

“I’ve learned that we are only touching the tip of the iceberg of possibility in tapping into the power of the human-animal bond for our mutual benefit,” Carr says.

therapy animals

It’s this human-animal bond that compels her to log over 1000 miles around the state each month, supervising programs and handlers. Therapy Animals of Utah works with the state psychiatric hospital, Primary Children’s Hospital, nursing homes, shelters, clinics, mental health treatment programs, schools, libraries, the Salt Lake City Airport, and juvenile courts.

In addition to this regular work, the nonprofit also holds special events, such as university stress-relief and workplace wellness events.

One especially popular service these animals provide is helping in library literacy programs. Many scientific studies support the idea that, as Carr explains, “kids perform better when they are relaxed and happy, and reading to an animal works on a deep physical level to produce relaxation and feelings of safety. Kids read to an animal that listens, snuggles, and doesn’t correct them. They feel happy and safe, and they enjoy the experience.”

Many other animals besides dogs and cats can be registered for animal-assisted therapy. Alpacas, domestic rats, guinea pigs, miniature horses, llamas, miniature pigs, parrots, and rabbits can also undergo training and form a strong bond with humans.

therapy animals

According to the Therapy Animals of Utah Web site, different from emotional support animals and service animals who serve one individual in need, a therapy animal “is an animal that meets certain criteria, is tested and insured, and visits people with its owner/handler in a variety of settings to provide health, social-emotional, and educational benefits.”

Therapy Animals of Utah is different from other organizations that promote animal-assisted interventions because of its strict criteria. Both the handler and his or her animal go through rigorous online and hands-on training that must be repeated every two years. Animal welfare is a top priority. Regular veterinary visits and a limit on the number of hours an animal can work are required, as are health and grooming standards.

Because this nonprofit doesn’t charge for its services, there is always a need for donations and help with fundraising. Carr encourages anyone who has a well-mannered and sociable animal to consider volunteering to become a therapy animal team: “It never ceases to amaze me how experienced therapy animals are able to understand what people need and minister to them in ways that their fellow humans can’t.” For more information, visit www.therapyanimalsutah.org. Visit them on Facebook.