Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker



By Kim Campbell Thornton

A visit from a dog, cat or other pet can make a bad day disappear. That's especially true if you are a resident in a nursing home or a patient in a hospital. The experience of visiting with a therapy pet can soothe frazzled nerves, revive dormant memories and bring smiles and laughter in places where those things are often in short supply.

Visits from pets can have significant health and emotional benefits for people in many different situations and types of facilities. Petting an animal is not only calming, it stimulates conversation. And contact with a pet can accelerate recovery from surgery.

Pet visits take many different forms. Most of us think of them at nursing homes or hospitals, but animal visitation teams also go to such places as schools for students with special needs and hospice facilities for people with terminal illnesses. Some pets and their handlers participate in programs at schools and libraries that help children improve their reading skills by reading books to pets.

Have you ever thought of making facility visits with your dog, cat or rabbit? It's not as easy as just signing up -- I should know. My dog Harper, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, has flunked therapy training twice because she's just a little too enthusiastic about wanting to greet people.

Pets who make facility visits can be purebreds or mixed breeds. Some have been adopted from shelters. The only requirement is that they have the right personality. Both pet and handler must undergo training and evaluation before they can begin to participate in therapy programs. Here are some things to know if you're interested in getting started:

-- Dogs and cats must be at least 1 year old before they can make visits. Pocket pets, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and rats, can be 6 months old.

-- Dogs should enjoy meeting strangers and have good basic obedience skills.

-- Qualifications include being able to greet people calmly; walking politely without pulling, jumping on people or stealing food; being comfortable in crowded situations; willing to sit patiently for petting; calming down quickly after praise or play; getting along with other animals; being unfazed by people using canes, crutches, walkers or wheelchairs; and taking treats without snapping or lunging for them.

-- Cats, bunnies and other pocket pets should be relaxed and friendly, willing to be handled by strangers and calm in the presence of loud noises and unpredictable situations. They may also need to be comfortable wearing a harness and leash or riding in a basket.

-- Pets must be clean and healthy, with short, filed nails that won't scratch patients.

-- Some organizations do not permit visits by pets who are fed a raw diet. Others restrict visits by pit bull-type dogs.

-- Handlers must be able to commit to a regular schedule of visits. People in facilities come to count on seeing them, and it can be a big disappointment if the animal doesn't show up. They should also be comfortable talking to strangers and answering questions about their pets. Managing an animal's comfort level is a priority. Making visits can be tiring or stressful for pets, even if they enjoy the attention.

-- Visits typically last 45 minutes to an hour. Teams make stops at different rooms, wherever their presence is requested, or they may go to one large room where people who want to meet with pets have gathered.

For more information about training for animal-assisted visits, contact organizations such as Pet Partners (, Love on a Leash (, Therapy Dogs International (, Therapy Dogs Inc. (, Paws for Friendship ( and Reading Education Assistance Dogs (


A squirt of water

makes the pill go down

Q: There's a new young veterinarian at the hospital where we take our cats. One of our cats is on daily medications, and we've gotten very good at "pilling" her. The new vet mentioned that we should follow the pill with a little water to wash it down. She said doing so could prevent a very serious medical condition. Is this new information? Because we've been pilling cats for years and this was news to us. -- via email

A: This advice has been around for more than few years now. "Dry-pilling" a cat is thought to be one of the triggers for a condition called esophageal stricture. A tablet stuck in the esophagus -- the tube leading to the stomach -- may trigger inflammation and scarring. Once this occurs, a cat may have difficulty swallowing food or water.

I recently saw startling imagery of what these strictures look like. At a seminar at the Western Veterinary Conference on how to best help these cats, presenters showed images in which the shape of a pill was a near-perfect match for the shape of the scarring.

According to research by veterinarians at Colorado State University, the risk of pill-related stricture is almost completely eliminated by "chasing" the pill with water. Researchers found that without water, almost two-thirds of the pill had yet to reach the stomach within five minutes. But with water, 100 percent of the pill was safely in the stomach within a single minute.

One of the simplest ways to keep a pill moving is by filling a needleless syringe with about a teaspoon of water (6 milliliters) and following the pill with the water in the same way you would give a liquid medication. Your veterinarian can provide you with appropriately sized syringes and demonstrate technique.

There may be an easier option, though. My friend Dr. Susan Little, an expert in feline medicine who has long been associated with Winn Feline Foundation, has written that a smidge of butter or cream cheese given to your cat as a post-pilling treat will accomplish the same goal. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Wool-sucking can be

compulsive in cats

-- Does your Siamese or Burmese cat love to suck on your wool sweaters? Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman and veterinary geneticist Dr. Leslie Lyons, in a study funded by Winn Feline Foundation, are working to find out why. Wool-sucking behavior can occur in any cat, but it's more common in Oriental breeds. Drs. Dodman and Lyons hope to discover whether wool-sucking has a genetic basis and uncover the physiological mechanisms involved in the obsessive disorder. That could lead to better treatment options and provide a genetic screening test to identify carriers.

-- In a recent survey, Bird Talk editors asked readers to rate the top 10 best pet birds. Cockatiels ranked No. 1, with 23 percent of the votes, followed by African grey parrots, budgerigars (also known as budgies, or parakeets), cockatoos, conures, macaws, Poicephalus parrots such as Senegals, Amazon parrots, quaker parrots and Pionus parrots. More important than popularity, though, is whether you and a particular bird species are a good match as far as personality, time you can spend with the bird, the amount of space in your home and previous bird experience.

-- Epilepsy is a common neurological condition in dogs, characterized by recurrent seizures. Medications are available to control the seizures, but sometimes the side effects are worse than the disease, or the drugs don't do enough to reduce the number of seizures. A recent study by Great Britain's Royal Veterinary College found that the time between seizures, rather than the number of seizures, is a better predictor of whether a dog will respond well to treatment. Other discoveries were that medication was less likely to control seizures in male dogs than in females, and that border collies and German shepherds were more difficult to manage with medication than other breeds. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.


Caption 01: Animals who make visits to facilities bring joy and healing. Position: Main Story

Caption 02: Cockatiels tend to be affectionate and usually enjoy being handled. Position: Pet Buzz/Item 2