Therapy animals provide ‘creature comfort’

Golden retriever Elsa and Brightview Senior Living resident Doris Petrella have known each other for years now. Their visits have become something they both look forward to.

“I love Elsa. She’s very kind,” said Petrella. “She just gives you attention when you want it.”

Elsa and her mom, Carmen Paul, volunteer with Creature Comfort Pet Therapy. The recently visited with residents of Brightview Senior Living in Warren.

“Creature Comfort was started in 2011 by two women who just knew that the need for pet therapy was great, and they wanted to expand that possibility of bringing these calm, loving animals to bring unconditional love to the people in need,” said the organization’s executive director Mary Beth Cooney.

Creature Comfort has about 500 volunteers — half are four-legged — and they come in lots of different breeds and sizes.

Not to be confused with service dogs, the Creature Comfort team members are called therapy animals.

“If you see them with their vest on, we actually had ‘Pet Me’ embroidered on their vest because we want you to approach them. We want you to come up and pet them. They’re made for petting, for hugging, for loving. They bring unconditional love,” said Cooney.

Last year, Creature Comfort visited more than 200 different facilities in eight counties and impacted about 70,000 people. The organization gets calls three to five times a week from new facilities looking for visits. Just to keep up with the demand, they are now in the process of recruiting new volunteers.

“The animal needs to be calm and the handler needs to have complete control over the animal in all different kinds of situations. They need to be OK with medical equipment because we’re encountering a lot of different things on visits. And the biggest thing is temperament, so they need to interact well with people. They need to build that connection because they really are the first step into the visit. They open up that communication for us,” said volunteer manager Karen Clark.

Potential teams fill out an application. They’re screened, and then the animal is tested in obedience and temperament. After orientation, a mentor joins them on their first visit for guidance. Volunteer Christine Clairmont works with her cats, Merry and Dean.

It’s just a great experience with people. I know that when I’m down, sick, not feeling great, they’re a great comfort, so I like to give that to other people and I know they love being around other people,” said Clairmont.

All of the handlers own the animals, which include dogs, cats, guinea pigs, a ferret, rabbit and mini goat.

“For me it’s just wonderful,” said Paul. “It’s a little way to contribute, but I get more out of it because it just makes everybody so happy.”

There are also health benefits to spending time with these furry friends, says CentraState Medical Center’s Dr. Ankur Desai.

“There is evidence that dates back to the 1980s on how people who have pets, not necessarily therapeutic pet, but pets in general have long-term improvement in physical health as well as emotional and mental health,” said Desai.

The animals can also help kids develop a sense of trust, says the doctor. The interaction often facilitates communication, especially among children with special needs.

“In terms of adults, pets overall are comforting and they can be anxiety-relieving for a lot of people,” said Desai.

The group of residents at Brightview Senior Living’s Wellspring Village has memory issues.

“The animals, when they come to see us, it brings out the heart and soul that folks have regardless of their age and regardless of whatever medical conditions a person may have,” said Wellspring Village Director Marymae Henley. “It brightens their whole day and demeanor.”

“It’s just nice. They’re so gentle,” said resident Ida Moscioni.

“They’re fun and it makes a big difference, so nobody wants to see the little kitties go home,” said resident Mary Ellen Mayger.

The residents are already looking forward to their next visit.