The Power of Pet-Assisted Therapy

Category: Blog, Fall 2016, Pet Friendly San Diego 312 0

San Diego Humane Society’s volunteer program provides comfort through cuddles and companionship


Anyone who has ever spent time around an animal can attest to the stress relief that comes from a good cuddle. In fact, studies have shown that simply petting an animal can lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety. But perhaps the best benefit of all is simply the smile that comes from animal companionship. That smile—that connection—is at the heart of San Diego Humane Society’s Pet-Assisted Therapy (P-AT) program.

“On every visit there’s a different impact,” says Laura Leonard, P-AT coordinator. “Whatever someone is going though, there’s always some sort of connection. Whether it helps them remember a pet they used to have, or provides them socialization and companionship at a time they’re feeling lonely, or calms them down when they’re feeling anxious, a visit with the animals has benefits that extend well beyond the time we’re there.”

For more than 30 years, the P-AT program has been sharing the joy of animals with community members of all ages in a range of care facilities, from convalescent homes and hospitals to juvenile detention centers, mental health centers and homes for medically fragile children. Making more than 60 visits per month, twice daily, volunteers bring rabbits, guinea pigs and—perhaps surprisingly—rats to sites throughout the county. The rats, Leonard says, are a fan favorite.

“There’s a novelty of seeing them and that is exciting in itself,” she says. “Rats are always curious, they can be trained, and they’re really sweet. They make people feel special because they want to be around you. Plus, there’s nothing like watching a rat eat a Cheerio!”

All animals who participate in the P-AT program are selected based on temperament. Most rabbits are strays or owner relinquishments to SDHS; rats and guinea pigs are on loan from Wee Companions Small Animal Adoption. All fulfill a volunteer term of six months to a year and are then available for adoption, creating a win-win situation for the animals, who benefit from the socialization and adventure the program affords them, and the people, who benefit from the human-animal bond the visits bring them.

“Pet-Assisted Therapy is the perfect marriage of our mission to help both animals and people,” says Dr. Gary Weitzman, SDHS president and CEO.

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