Anyone who loves animals knows there’s something special about the bond that develops. You can see that in action in this video of children who have Hemophilia B swimming with the dolphins at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Florida. The children and dolphins were filmed during the production of a “Medical Stories” episode for PBS.
It looks fun, but did you know researchers also have investigated the psychological and physical benefits of spending time with animals?
Though studies have so far been small, time with animals produces “a warm fuzzy feeling” and measurable changes, said Jennifer Pfieffer, a nurse manager with Nemours Children’s Specialty Care in Jacksonville, Florida.
“You just see an animal and your stress stops. Your blood pressure lowers,” she said.
Pfieffer is among six nurses at Nemours who recently completed a graduate program in animal therapy at the University of North Florida. She’s part of the ADAPT program to provide animal-assisted activities (like impromptu animal visits while children are visiting the clinic) and animal-assisted therapy, which involves a therapeutic goal.
Pfieffer and the animal therapy nurses recently spent time at a marine center in St. Augustine that offers the opportunity to swim with dolphins. They took a look at the facility with both patients – and dolphins – in mind. It’s important to think about the welfare of animals used in therapy programs, she said.
They assessed the care and keeping of the dolphins at the St. Augustine program to ensure the mammals’ needs were being met. In addition, to basics like food, marine centers must respect the dolphins’ natural instincts, give them the freedom to socialize with people (or not) and provide pools that enable them to be as free as possible within their limited environment.
Pfieffer and her fellow nurses hope to do additional research with larger sample sizes to further investigate the potential benefits for their young patients. She’s already seen it work one-on-one. Pfieffer recalls a young patient in a wheelchair with contracted muscles. A therapy goal was to help the child learn to extend and reach. It wasn’t happening until a chance meeting with Gypsy, a miniature horse.
“He actually reached out to pet her,” Pfieffer said, and the child’s mother cried tears of joy.
The animals in the ADAPT program participated in a Zoom call to connect with patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch it.