Doctor prescribes pets to help elderly stay healthy and happy

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Billy the parakeet can do some amazing things, including playing fetch, but Billy's most amazing trick so far has been revitalizing his formerly lonely and depressed elderly owner, according to William Thomas, MD, the founder of the Eden Alternative. The Eden Alternative aims to create more enriching environments in long-term care facilities by adding plants, animals, and opportunities to interact with children.

Dr. Thomas shared the story of Billy during a July 13 session at the AVMA Annual Convention about the benefits of the human-animal bond for elderly people, titled, "A Physician's Perspective on the Human-animal Bond."

Dr. Thomas has written a book about animals and the elderly, called "Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home. The Eden Alternative in Action." At the session, he explained that Billy gave new life and purpose to a formerly lonely and depressed man.

"The first time (my wife and I) went out to dinner with him, he was a sad old man," Dr. Thomas said. "But the second time (after he got Billy), he was just glowing."

Billy's story was just one of many anecdotes Dr. Thomas shared about how regular contact with animals improves the well being of the elderly, particularly those living in long-term care facilities.

He also cited numerous studies that bolster the anecdotal evidence, including studies that found that nursing homes with well-cared-for resident animals have lower infection, hospitalization, and morbidity rates among patients and have 30 percent lower staff turnover than homes without animals.

Although there is compelling evidence that nursing home patients benefit from resident animals, Dr. Thomas warned that resident animal programs require careful planning and dedication from the staff, residents, and an attending veterinarian to be successful.

Dr. Thomas said veterinarians are vital to the success of these programs. He urged that veterinarians take an active role in the planning stages and continue to be active throughout the life of the program.

"You have a chance not just to provide wellness for animals, but the community as well," he said.

Dr. Thomas said veterinarians should encourage nursing homes to engage in careful planning and designate a responsible person to be the animal's advocate before an animal is brought into the nursing home.

"Move ahead in a careful way that is respectful of the animal, the people who live there, and the people who work there," he said.

Selecting the right animal is crucial and requires the same careful screening required when selecting employees, Dr. Thomas said.

"You don't drive around town in a pick-up truck looking for someone to work for you," he explained.

Once an animal is selected, the veterinarian should conduct regular health screenings and keep a close eye on behavioral changes that could signal a problem, Dr. Thomas said, adding that the humans in the home may require instruction in consistent, positive training techniques.

"It's like parenting with 180 parents," he said. "Everybody has a different way of handling a dog."

Jamie Schoenbeck, a veterinary technician who attended the seminar, said she found the information useful and was happy to hear a physician's perspective.

"I have a great deal of interest in the veterinary field working with the medical field," Schoenbeck said.

Dr. John New, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the AVMA Committee on the Human-Animal Bond, said the session is part of the AVMA's efforts to educate veterinarians, who are increasingly being asked to participate in animal-assisted activity and therapy programs.

"Veterinarians are beginning to get calls asking for help," Dr. New said. "What we hope we can do is get in on the planning process, not just problem solving."

The AVMA has established guidelines for animal-assisted activities and therapy and is putting together an extensive bibliography on the topic.

For more information, visit the AVMA Web site,, or the Eden Alternative Web site,