Healthcare systems see benefit for “comfort animals” in healing

By Adela Crandell Durkee For Chronicle Media

Comfort dogs in training. (Photo by Cecily Heuser)

A Google search combining just about any animal and “comfort” yields a site describing a registered comfort animal.

“Except fish,” explained 11-year-old Grace Brady. “That leads you to comfort food sites.”

Brady completed a report on Service Animals just before her school’s winter break.

Comfort Pets or Emotional Support Animals differ from Medically Certified Service Animals because Service Animals fall under the protective rules as established by the American with Disabilities Act. Depending on a patient’s medical requirements and the animal’s training and certification, accommodations may be required for comfort animals, as well. DOT is currently considering allowing comfort pigs on passenger airplanes. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 protects the rights of people with disabilities to keep “assistance animals,” including for emotional support (“comfort animals”), even when there is a general no-pets allowed policy.

Centegra Health System worked with the Illinois Department of Public Health to update Illinois law to allow therapy dogs into patient’s rooms. Their Caring Paws Animal Assisted Therapy Program started in 2008. Now they have more than 30 registered therapy dogs in the program.

According to their website, “Therapy pets can be an integral part of the healing process, providing comfort, stress relief, and hope to patients, associates, family members and visitors.” The Centegra dogs work in areas such as the physical medicine and rehab department to help patients achieve therapy goals, visit the Sage Cancer Center, provide bedside visits to patients, visit family members in the surgery waiting room and hospital lobbies, and in behavioral health and staff areas upon request.

Emotional Support Animals are used in Animal Assisted Therapy to improve the physical, social, emotional and cognitive condition of the patient. Most Emotional Support Animals are dogs and cats; however, this therapy can also include parrots, horses, elephants, snakes, hedgehog, miniature pigs, lizards, and monkeys. Even turkeys and chickens can qualify as comfort pets according to USA Today. These animals are now recognized as providing a valuable service to the elderly and to others with a medical disability and, in some cases, have recently reached the status of Service Animals.

Therapy pets visit various facilities, including libraries, nursing homes and schools, to bring affection and joy to residents and children. Although pet owners can train therapy pets on their own, many pet therapy organizations require proof that the pet has passed a standard skills test.

Although a variety of pets are eligible to be certified as Comfort or Therapy pets, it may be difficult to train and certify a pet boa constrictor or a hedgehog to relate to stranger.

All Caring Paws volunteers at Centegra are registered with Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs Incorporated. Pet Partners Team Training Workshops and Evaluations are held three times a year at Centegra Hospital-McHenry. Volunteers receive comprehensive coursework taken in-person or online that highlights skills and strategies necessary for therapy animal work.

Centegra invites interested dog owners to qualify their pets and become volunteers. Please contact Volunteer Services at (815) 759-4626 to register for an upcoming workshop. For now, chickens, turkeys, hedgehogs, and boa constrictors are not eligible to join Centegra’s Caring Paws Animal Assisted Therapy Program.


Using animals to provide comfort–