Therapy animals demonstrate the healing powers of the human-animal bond, said Dr. Samuel Costello during the Bustad Memorial Lecture at the AVMA Annual Convention.
Dr. Costello, who practices at Town and Country Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Ohio, won the 2007 Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award, primarily for his work with therapy animals.
Of his eight dogs and six cats, four dogs and two cats are or were therapy animals. Veterinary practice can become routine, Dr. Costello said, so he advocates going out to work in the community.
"Visiting with my dog allows me to give back to society," he said.
Dr. Costello's wife actually started the group with which he volunteers—K-9's for Compassion, an affiliate of the Delta Society. Dr. Bustad helped found the Delta Society more than three decades ago to improve human health through interactions with service and therapy animals. The Delta Society's Pet Partners Program evaluates and registers therapy animals prior to their visiting facilities.
After becoming the veterinary adviser to K-9's for Compassion, Dr. Costello began visiting hospitals and nursing homes with his dog Bear. He didn't truly understand the power of the human-animal bond until then, when patients who couldn't remember him would remember his dog. He and Bear also visit libraries and schools, where children who don't feel comfortable reading in front of their peers or parents will read to the dog.
In addition, Dr. Costello evaluates animals for the Pet Partners Program. The Delta Society evaluation involves health screening as well as obedience and aptitude tests.
K-9's for Compassion has grown to 57 members since beginning in 2000. Some members enjoy visiting hospitals because the patients are always changing, whereas others like to get to know residents of nursing homes. Some of the residents are afraid of dogs, but others will tell stories about their childhood pets.
"We're kind of the chauffeurs for our dogs," said Dr. Costello, adding, "Dogs oftentimes like to work."
Some animals don't take to therapy work as readily, though. Dr. Costello noted that his group recommends limiting visits to one hour per week to discourage members from overworking the animals. K-9's for Compassion mentors new members for five to six visits.