Kevin Mathews, Air Force and Afghanistan war Veteran, regularly visits his local VA medical center to receive treatment for service-connected disabilities. He also benefits from regular therapy animal visits made possible by the VA and Pet Partners partnership.

“I have interacted with animals at VA, and I noticed I feel myself relaxing and my blood pressure coming down,” said Mathews. “I have a very heightened sense of awareness in the facilities, but I notice my shoulders start to relax when the therapy animal teams are there and I’m able to interact with the animals.”

Animal-assisted therapy can be an effective complementary treatment for mental health and behavioral health disorders like depression and substance use, as it decreases stress levels. Additionally, research has shown that Veterans who own or foster dogs (or any other companion animal) are more physically active, have lower cardiac disease risk, report a higher quality of life, and have better overall health.

Human-animal bond is evident in Veteran experiences

“The power of the human-animal bond is evident in the experiences of many Veterans, like Kevin. VA has an extensive animal-assisted therapy program, which this partnership with Pet Partners augments,” said Dr. Tracy L. Weistreich, nurse executive of VA’s National Center for Healthcare Advancement and Partnerships (HAP).

Pet Partners provides training to therapy animal teams and, together with VA, encourages VA medical facilities to establish and expand trained therapy animal visits. The partnership also provides Veteran communities with volunteer opportunities and helps integrate Veterans and their families into Pet Partners’ activities and events.

“Research has shown interacting with an animal can improve a Veteran’s quality of life by reducing stress and encouraging more active engagement in treatment protocols,” said Elisabeth Van Every, Pet Partners’ senior communications specialist. “It helps people who have experienced trauma and creates opportunities for patients to have engagement with animals while being seen.”

“Absolutely recommend this program to fellow Veterans.”

Through this partnership, Veterans can engage with a diverse set of therapy animals, including dogs, cats, small horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, domestic rats, birds, miniature pigs, llamas and alpacas. Veterans also benefit from therapy animal teams led by Veteran handlers.

“We’d like to have more Veterans and more VA facilities get involved in therapy animal visits,” Van Every said.

“I would absolutely recommend this program to fellow Veterans and I hope that more of them join the program,” Mathews added.

The VA and Pet Partners partnership was established in October 2019 to help improve quality of life, social engagement, and health of Veterans by increasing access to animal-assisted interventions, including animal-assisted therapy, throughout the VA health care system.

More information about Pet Partners.

More information on other VHA and HAP partnerships.

By Jamie D. Davis is a health systems specialist at VA's National Center for Healthcare Advancement and Partnerships

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Published on May. 28, 2022

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