By Georgina Chong-You

Photo provided by Gentle Carrousel

Beyond the role of a family pet, animals also play a vital role in medicine. You may be thinking that animals can certainly make someone happy, but what do they have to do with someone’s health? Can an animal’s presence actually become medical treatment and improve health?

According to the Mayo Clinic, pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, is a “growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.”

There are myriad benefits to using animals in the rehabilitative process for anyone of any age who is dealing with some level of sickness. Moreover, there are a variety of animals that can be used for pet therapy like dogs, cats, and horses.

TRAINING FOR THERAPY

Every animal used for pet therapy is required to first go through a training process to prepare for the exposure to various people and how to interact with various people.

At Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, the training program for their horses lasts two years. “The horses work with medical professionals in oncology units, the ICU, and with occupational, speech and physical therapists as part of the treatment for patients who have suffered strokes, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations and burns.”

Although there is a challenge for horses to work inside buildings, you can find Gentle Carousel horses working in places from Alachua County libraries to Haven Hospice, the Ronald McDonald House to UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital, and the stage of the Curtis M. Philips Center for the Performing Arts for the Stop Children’s Cancer concert. Gator Paws Pet Therapy trains its animals under the certifying agency Alliance of Therapy Dogs where they provide testing, certification, registration, support, and insurance for members who volunteer with their dogs to visit various facilities.

LOCAL THERAPY PROGRAMS

GENTLE CAROUSEL MINIATURE THERAPY HORSES

I had the pleasure of connecting with a local organization considered veterans in the field of animal assisted therapy. Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses has been in service as an animal assisted therapy program for 20 years in Gainesville. The teams of therapy horses work with over 25,000 adults and children each year inside children’s hospitals, hospice programs, and with families who have experienced traumatic events. They shared with me that in addition to their work in the Gainesville area, the tiny horses have been called in to help survivors and first responders outside of the Gainesville area as well, like tornado survivors, victims of mass shootings, or child trafficking victims. For more information on horse therapy through Gentle Carousel Miniature, you may contact them at: www.gentlecarouseltherapyhorses.com.

BEAU THE THERAPY DOG

Terry Biehl and her dog Beau, a five-year-old Goldendoodle, are a therapy team certified under the Alliance of Therapy Dogs agency. She started the FB group called Gator Paws Pet Therapy to serve people here in Gainesville. With over 100 members, Gator Paws Pet Therapy focuses on community, learning, and sharing. Terry and her dog Beau visit UF Health Shands hospitals, students at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College. “We are a network of caring volunteers who are willing to share our special canines to bring smiles and joy,” shares Terry. For more information on Gator Paws Pet Therapy, feel free to contact Terry Biehl at www.facebook.com/beaubiehl or terrybiehl@cox.net.

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA’S PET THERAPY DIVISION

“The presence of dogs in the hospital allows patients to feel more at home by giving them the opportunity to reminisce about their own dogs. It’s always a treat to experience the unconditional love that dogs provide our patients.” This is the testimony of the University of Florida’s Pet Therapy division right here in Gainesville. This Pet Therapy Volunteer program began in 1995 when a nurse recognized the power of animals to help patients not only feel better emotionally and mentally, but also physically. For more information on UF’s Pet Therapy program: https://ufhealth.org/pet-therapy-volunteers.