Lending a helping paw--or hoof or claw by Sherry Bithell

kittyDo you own a pet? Odds are, yes. According to a 2001 study, 62 percent of U.S. households reported owning at least one pet--whether it's a dog, cat, bird, fish, reptile, or another animal--compared to 56 percent in 1988.

The increase in the number of pet owners has resulted in a corresponding rise in pet-related expenditures. In 1994, owners spent $17 billion on their pets, a figure that rose to $28.5 billion in 2001, and is estimated to total a cool $31 billion by year's end. And while dedicated pet owners are shelling out for a Frisbee for Fido or a catnip mouse for Fluffy, they're unconsciously making another investment--in their own health.

Physical and psychological pros of pets

Myriad studies conducted in recent years have all yielded a unanimous result--that pets are a boon to their owners' health.

For example, in 1999, researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo studied 48 stockbrokers who were on medication for hypertension. Half of the stockbrokers were given a pet, and when the group was tested under high-stress situations after six months, those with pets had lower blood pressure. Three years later, a University of Pennsylvania study found that, on average, people with pets have lower blood fat levels and lower blood pressure than people without pets. Suthers-McCabe and horseRecently, scientists have also dispelled the myth that pets cause allergies. In 2002, the Medical College of Georgia, which had tracked 474 babies from birth to age seven, reported that children with two or more dogs or cats in their homes were half as likely to develop common allergies or asthma than those who didn't have pets. In October, researchers from the University of Virginia and the Central Hospital of Norrbotten in Lulea-Boden, Sweden, reported that 80 percent of the children they studied who had cat allergies had never had a cat in their homes.

Other studies have shown that contact with pets can reduce the symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children and that senior citizens who own pets visit their doctors less frequently than those who don't. It's also been proven that the presence of an aquarium in a doctor's or dentist's waiting room helps reduce a patient's stress level.

Suthers-McCabe has a theory about the rising trend of pet ownership. Noting that humans have kept pets for more than an estimated 10,000 years, she says, "As technology takes humans more out of the environment, I think some part of us recognizes that we're getting disenfranchised with nature. Pets bring us back to nature."

Virginia Tech boasts its own expert on the many benefits that pets can provide to humans: Dr. Marie Suthers-McCabe (right), associate professor of veterinary medicine, Extension specialist for animal-human interaction, and director of CENTAUR (the Center for Animal Human Relationships).

Active assistance from animals

Aside from the incidental health benefits they bestow upon their owners, pets also play an active role in helping humans through such programs as Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).

With AAA, there are no specific goals, aside from providing positive, casual interactions between animals and humans. One example is when owners take their pets to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and hospitals, where people are more prone to feel isolated, anxious, and depressed. Visits from the pets and their owners give the residents a social outlet, present a form of entertainment, and meet the basic human need for nurturing and touch.

In Blacksburg, Suthers-McCabe works with the YMCA Community Pets program, in which Virginia Tech students can take their pets to interact with senior citizens at the Warm Hearth Village assisted-living program, Heritage Hall nursing home, and Adult Day Services at Virginia Tech. All students can participate once their pets have been vaccinated and screened for behavior and temperament.

AAT, on the other hand, is directed by a certified therapist--such as an occupational, physical, speech, or mental health therapist--and entails carefully planned and monitored progress toward specific physical or cognitive goals. This form of therapy, which is often covered by insurance, can be applied in a variety of settings, such as physical disability therapy centers, individual or group therapy sessions, and hospices.

One example of AAT is hippotherapy, in which patients ride horses as part of physical therapy. Another area in which AAT has proven successful is with Alzheimer patients. Studies show that the presence of an animal elicits more of a response from patients than other stimuli because it provides a better source for outward focus.

Although dogs are the primary therapy animals used in AAA and AAT, Suthers-McCabe notes, "Many people are 'cat people' and, if they are in a long-term care facility or other institutional setting, would love an AAA visit with a therapy cat. Cats are also used in AAT, such as with an occupational therapist having a patient stroke a cat to improve hand function." However, she adds, because "not all cats enjoy prolonged human contact, therapy cats are very special and can be hard to find."

Suthers-McCabe also mentions some more unusual animals used in therapy. Mona Sams of the Lewis-Gale Clinic in Roanoke, Va., who works with children who are autistic or who have hearing or post-traumatic stress disorders, has had the most success when she uses llamas to interact with the children. Another example is equine-facilitated psychotherapy. Even if the patients aren't riding the horses, Suthers-McCabe says with a smile, "there is something about the presence of a horse that really opens people up."

Pets in prisons

prisoner with petToday, several prisons nationwide conduct an unusual--and relatively new--form of AAA known as pets-in-prisons programs. In these programs, selected inmates train dogs from shelters to become service dogs, companion animals, or family dogs.

Dr. Grant Turnwald, associate dean for academic affairs at the VMRCVM, helped start such a program, "Friends for Folks," in the early 1990s at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center when he was teaching at Oklahoma State. At the time, such programs were rare; Turnwald first heard about them at a national conference and "came back all fired up to start one," he says. He proposed the idea to officials at the Lexington facility and says, "Things took off." Soon afterward, inmates were training dogs from the Second Chance rescue shelter as companion dogs for senior citizens.

Ten years later, the program is thriving and will be featured during a series Animal Planet will air, starting Dec. 29, on the pets-in-prisons programs. Current program director Dr. John Otto says, "It's a tremendous program, and it's survived budget cuts to actually expand over the years. Grant should be really proud of it."

That he is. "It was one of the most rewarding things I've done--interacting with the inmates and seeing their dedication to those dogs and the care they put into training them," Turnwald says. "It was frightening, walking in there for the first time, but really, it makes such a difference."

Today, Suthers-McCabe works with the Prison Puppies Uniting People (PUP) Program at the Bland Correctional Facility, where the inmates train service dogs for the St. Francis of Assisi Service Dog Foundation in Roanoke, Va. The St. Francis foundation rescues dogs from shelters and trains them to perform more than 100 tasks as guide dogs for the visually impaired; as hearing dogs, to alert people with hearing impairments; or as assistance dogs, to physically aid their owners by picking up items, opening doors, or carrying items in backpacks. Even more specially trained service dogs can detect seizures, diabetes, coronary disorders, or psychiatric episodes.

The result? It's estimated that a successfully trained service dog can reduce human health care hours by 68 percent, saving anywhere from $60,000-$80,000 per person over the working life of the service dog. Currently, 43 million people in the U.S. have physical disabilities, and approximately 10 percent of them could benefit from a service dog. However, a lack of trainers has meant a shortage of dogs--about 50 percent of those who start out as trainers drop out of the program, which takes a year of hard work--and there is a waiting list of at least five years to get a service dog.

That's where the Prison PUP Program, created two years ago by Suthers-McCabe and the St. Francis foundation, helps out. Puppies from shelters are given to honors dorm inmates, who must meet stringent criteria before being selected as trainers, which becomes their prison job. The inmates are taught by the foundation how to train the puppies to perform the tasks that will make them successful service dogs.

The dogs live with the inmates full-time for the year-long training--except during the "Pups on Parole" part of the program. Because it's important to socialize the puppies, Suthers-McCabe explains, they sometimes go home for a weekend with her, the St. Francis trainers, or veterinary students. "These dogs will have to be able to function in a normal environment, so they need the exposure to women and children, stairs, car rides, carpeting, and normal household sounds, such as a blender or a vacuum cleaner." In fact, she says, the first time she took a group of puppies home for the weekend, it was raining. "When I turned on the windshield wipers, it freaked them out--they'd never seen them before!"

Although fewer than 20 programs similar to the one at Bland exist, they've been deemed a success. Service dogs trained in the prison programs have a 75 percent success rate, compared to the 50 percent success rate of dogs trained by regular volunteers.

There is, however, surprisingly little data about the effects of the programs on the inmates themselves, which is why Suthers-McCabe and two graduate students in the Department of Psychology, Elizabeth Van Voorhees and Angie Fournier (M.S. clinical psychology '02), are studying the 12 inmates participating in the Bland Prison PUP Program. By interviewing the inmates at the beginning and end of each training session, the researchers are hoping to measure, among other factors, levels of depression, self-esteem, and empathy.

Suthers-McCabe, who expects the results to be published next summer, cites one individual, "Joe," whom she has used as a case study. Incarcerated since 1989 on charges of drug-related violence, Joe was one of the first trainers in the program. During the first six months of the program, he exhibited a significant drop in his depression level. When that result was mentioned to him, he pointed out, "Dogs don't give us time to be depressed." He also showed a significant increase in his self-esteem and empathy levels.

Based on the work she's done so far with the Bland program, Fournier has decided to base her dissertation on the prison dog program started in June at the Botetourt Correctional Facility. The Botetourt program's focus is training dogs to be adoptable for families. Botetourt guard Virginia Fulgham, who oversees the program, prevailed on a friend who works with the American K-9 Association and the St. Francis of Assisi Foundation to teach the inmates how to effectively train the dogs. Each of the three dogs currently in the program has four primary trainers and two backup trainers, and lives in a crate between its trainers' bunk beds in one of the three prison dorms.

It's not an easy job for the inmates chosen to train the dogs, Fulgham emphasizes. "Not only are they working their regular prison jobs, but because Botetourt is a substance abuse treatment facility, the inmates are also undergoing intensive treatment programs."

Despite the potential hardships, the inmates training the dogs take pride in their work. "Mr. Brown," who is finishing a six-year sentence, says, "Basically, we're saving the dog's life." And he's not exaggerating--one of their dogs, Angel, was abandoned on the side of the road when she was only seven weeks old. She was brought to Botetourt and today, at four months old, is impressively responsive to basic commands. Another dog, Brooke, was left at a vet's office when she was five months old because her owner couldn't afford the surgery to repair her inverted eyelids. She, too, was brought to the prison, and the inmates and guards pooled their money to finance the needed surgery. Today, at nine months old, Brooke is well trained and ready for adoption.

Fournier, who conducted preliminary interviews after the first round of training, says, "I want to determine the program's effect on the prisoners' behavior, mood, self-esteem--does it change the way they see themselves, as a criminal versus a contributor?" She notes that she has already observed several positive results. "It's helping the inmates become more social because while they're socializing the dogs, they're working with prisoners they might not have met before or might have had some negative experience with," she explains.

"Joe," who has been an inmate trainer since the program began, admits, "At first, I was kind of worried about the safety of the dogs, but as it turned out, most of the inmates haven't seen a dog in years. And so any time we're in the yard with the dogs, a crowd gathers."

Fournier says she's also heard comments from the inmates that the dogs are their best friends or part of their families. One of Brooke's trainers, "Dennis," says, "It'll be rough when she goes for adoption. Because that's exactly what she feels like--a kid." In spite of the heartache of giving up a dog, inmates say it's worth it. "We give the dog a new life. And it helps us lighten up, brings a little humanity into our lives," says Mr. Brown.

"The neat thing about this type of program is that there's a win-win-win aspect to it," says Suthers-McCabe, who is trying to find the funding to get the Prison PUP program renewed. "It's helping the prisoners. We're training dogs to help other people. And it's also helping the prison environment--the prisoners say they can talk to the guards more. The dogs provide a common ground."

Overall, says Mr. Brown, "It gives us incentive--if we can change a dog, maybe we can change ourselves and become better people." Like the dogs they're rescuing, the inmates are giving themselves a second chance.

inmate with pup
In spite of the heartache of giving up a dog, inmates say it's worth it. "We give the dog a new life. And it helps us lighten up, brings a little humanity into our lives."

The Pet Loss Support Hotline

One of the many resources The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine offers pet owners is the Pet Loss Support Hotline. Open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-9 p.m., the hotline is staffed by vet students who have been trained by a psychologist from the Medical College of Virginia and social worker Julie Sell-Smith to answer calls from owners who are facing the death of a pet or who are already grieving the loss of one.

Sell-Smith, who is also a certified animal-assisted therapist and works the hotline, says that the goal is to offer support for the grieving pet owners. "A common thread in a majority of the calls is that people are ashamed or embarrassed about feeling the level of grief they do," she explains. "After all, to their friends and family, 'it was only a pet.' They call us because they want to express their grief in a nonjudgmental environment and for reassurance that their feelings are normal, that what they're going through is normal."

Hotline staff members also suggest ways for owners to cope with their grief, such as getting a memorial stone, planting a tree, or having some kind of a ritual ceremony to say goodbye to their pet. One recent call Sell-Smith fielded came from a woman who was facing the one-year anniversary of her cat's death. "She just basically wanted to talk about her plans to write a short story about her cat with someone who would understand."

Approximately 20 such hotlines are operated by veterinary medical schools around the country, and Virginia Tech's hotline, which was started in 1995, receives an estimated 200 calls per year from all over the country. The students who work at the hotline do so strictly on a volunteer basis. Laura Weir, a first-year veterinary medicine student, says that although it's hard to talk to people about their grief, "this is something any practicing veterinarian will be faced with, so it's valuable experience in how to talk to people--and how to just listen to them."

To contact someone at the Pet Loss Support Hotline, call 540/231-8038. For online information and resources, go to www.vetmed.vt.edu.