Helen: Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud. I’m Helen Osborne, President of Health Literacy Consulting, founder of Health Literacy Month and your host of Health Literacy Out Loud.
In these podcasts you get to listen in on my conversations with some truly remarkable people. You will hear what health literacy is, why it matters and ways we call can help improve health understanding.
Today I’m talking with Dr. Alice Villalobos, otherwise known as Dr. Alice. She is director of Pawspice in Hermosa Beach, California and Animal Oncology Consultation Service in Woodland Hills, California.
Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Alice is a founding member of the Veterinary Cancer Society and President of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. She writes and lectures worldwide on veterinary oncology, quality of life, bioethics, palliative hospice care for animals and the human-animal bond.
I was introduced to Dr. Alice by a long-time Health Literacy Out Loud listener, Valerie Adams. Valerie is the founder of Healing Heart Foundation. Thanks for making this connection, Valerie, and welcome, Dr. Alice.
Dr. Alice: Thank you very much, Helen. I’m glad to be with you today.
Helen: I’m just delighted that you’re here. You’re the first veterinarian I’ve ever interviewed for a podcast. I look forward to bridging the gap between animal medicine and human medicine.
Dr. Alice: It’s not such a huge gap, really.
Helen: I want to get there. That’s what I want to find more about, the human-animal bond. I know the world of healthcare in humans, and I certainly have had enough pets in my life. Those I know, live with and love have a lot of pets. Help us bridge that gap. What do you mean by the human-animal bond?
Dr. Alice: We have definitions for this relationship that people hold dearly with their animals. We call the animal a companion animal when we’re trying to distinguish it between a non-domesticated animal and an animal that isn’t a cuddly, loving creature that can communicate back and forth with a person or their master or mistress.
It’s a relationship that people have with a specific animal or group of animals that enriches their lives. It also gives that person a purpose to help the environment where the animals live.
Helen: Tell us more about that. When you say “companion animal,” might I call that a pet?
Dr. Alice: Exactly.
Helen: Dogs and cats are what come to mind most often.
Dr. Alice: They’re domestic animals. Some people have horses. People have ferrets or little birds that are very loving back and forth.
Helen: My daughter had a hamster.
Dr. Alice: Right. It doesn’t have to be a dog or a cat, but it’s a companion animal. We call some pets pocket pets. Those are the little reptiles, hamsters, rodents and little creatures that really are enjoyable and make wonderful pets for children. There are guinea pigs, little lizards and even snakes. People really enjoy these animals. They have a bond with these animals, and the animals do respond.
Helen: We go from pocket pets all the way up to horses.
Dr. Alice: You bet. It’s what a person decides is going to be their companion animal.
Helen: You’ve got the person and you’ve got their choice for a companion animal. You were talking about the environment too, about enriching our environment.
Dr. Alice: There is a huge need for animals to survive. What happens is people form a relationship with companion animals, and then they start to understand that all animals probably have consciousness and have their desires and needs. This respect for the animal kingdom certainly involves the environment that the animals live in. It’s really a global appreciation for life.
The human-animal bond was always described for companion animals. It really expanded to a global aesthetic where people appreciate all animals and their environment.
Helen: Is that global?
Dr. Alice: Yes. It’s global. We’re talking about water conservation, the forest, rivers, lakes and jungles. It’s everything. It is definitely a human need for us to have a planet where animals can thrive.
Helen: You talked about companion animals. What is the term you use for animals that are specially trained to help people?
Dr. Alice: Those are called service animals.
Helen: I was hunting for the right word. That could be a dog for someone who has vision problems or a monkey. We have Helping Hands in Boston.
Dr. Alice: Absolutely. They are training ponies now because miniature horses are very intelligent, and they live a lot longer than dogs. It may turn out to be that ponies are going to be used more and more. They train well and are very long living and healthy. It’s a possibility we’ll be seeing more ponies and miniature horses as service animals escorting college students on large campuses.
You’ll see and hear more about this. Right now the best-known service or therapy animals are dogs.
Helen: With each animal you mention, I start going off with these stories. I’m thinking about who has this and where have I heard about the relationship between animals and people?
Our focus on Health Literacy Out Loud always has been on humans and communication in healthcare. Tell us how animals might play a part in that.
Dr. Alice: Animals definitely are helping people make connections in social life.
You may have a disabled person or a person that has a limitation of some sort. It could be a personality issue, or a person who is withdrawn, like a child with autism. The minute they get the chance to be with an animal such as a dog or cat, you find that they communicate a lot easier. They just have a certain comfort zone that the animal sort of puts upon that child or individual.
If you have a person that is in a wheelchair and they’re in a park, with a dog they’re going to have much more communication with other people versus if they’re there by themselves. People tend to avoid others with wheelchairs, but if they see a dog they’ll walk up and say, “Can I pet your dog?”
Immediately that person is engaged in a conversation where they would have had that connection previously. Dogs give people independence, especially people who are blind, for instance. The seeing-eye dog or guide dog gives that person the ability to go out and be who they are normally without having to depend on another person to get across the street, etc.
Communication is terrific if you just look at all the opportunities that animals give. For instance, the dog park is a whole culture.
Helen: Is that just where dogs go running free? I know some communities have those.
Dr. Alice: Yes. A lot of communities have them. In fact, there are very few communities that do not have one at this point. We have found how amazingly vital this facility is. There is about 67% of Americans that have animals.
Helen: Do they really?
Dr. Alice: Yes. We don’t have facilities really designated for animals. It’s always, “Keep Off,” “Dogs Keep Off,” or “No Dogs Allowed.” The American society is becoming more open. The European societies are quite open to dogs. They figured that out a long time ago.
Our American societies have at least put aside dog parks. What happens is you could have a person who lives alone and may not hear from their relatives. They have a dog and go to a dog park, and suddenly they’re surrounded with a whole culture of friends. They have an opportunity to create a brand-new category of friends who love dogs, and they get together.
Wherever dogs are being walked, suddenly you can say, “That’s a great-looking dog. You can have a common communication conduit with the dogs.”
Helen: I love that term, “Common communication conduit.”
Can we take it from dog parks to a healthcare setting? You’re making a very compelling case. I don’t think many people have to be convinced very hard that companion pets matter in so many people’s lives.
When somebody is sick or ill and is in a healthcare setting, we probably can’t have the animals come in unless they’re service animals. How can the provider, communicator or professional bridge that gap and bring that animal in metaphorically if not literally?
Dr. Alice: There are a huge number of certified pet therapy dogs that belong to an army of volunteers who are pet owners. They own the dog, cat, rabbit or bird and have already qualified with organizations that are designed for pet therapy visits to hospitals, rest homes and all kinds of facilities where people are rehabilitating.
Helen: As you’re saying that, I’m remembering my mother’s last days. There was a pet therapist who came in with little puppies and baby bunnies. It gave her such joy. When she couldn’t do much else in the world, she could pet that little pet.
Dr. Alice: Exactly. The largest organization that is international which is devoted to training pet therapy dogs and other species of animals is the Delta Society. They have over 6,000.
Helen: We’ll have that link on our website.
Dr. Alice: They are a wonderful organization and they have affiliate groups. For instance, we have one here in Orange County.
Helen: In California.
Dr. Alice: I shouldn’t say one. There are hundreds of them. I’m just saying that the Animal Health Foundation which I belong to is the non-profit branch of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association. We support an affiliate of the Delta Society. We have 50 teams, and they visit probably 100 hospitals and facilities. They even help children read. There is a reading program where kids read to the animals.
Helen: I’m so glad you’re saying that. In health literacy we talk about reading all of the time. Now that you say it, I remember seeing a picture in the paper of a small child reading to a dog. The dog doesn’t get impatient and say, “You said that word the wrong way.”
Dr. Alice: Exactly. The dog is sort of trained to be interested when the pages turn and to encourage the child.
People don’t know how to explain it, but you can call it an aesthetic or telepathy. Animals can communicate by looking. They have good eye contact. A child looks straight into the dog’s eyes and the dog will look back at the child, and there is communication or approval and encouragement.
The children feel it and they go on to read better. The children’s reading scores in these programs go up. That is creating a huge benefit for that child’s life.
Helen: Isn’t that wonderful? I seem to recall hearing something about blood pressure or other types of illnesses perhaps that adults have.
Dr. Alice: Let me just give you some statistics that are real. For instance, a person who has a heart attack is 42% more likely to survive if they have a pet to take care of that they want to get home to.
Helen: It’s a sense of purpose. Is that what it is?
Dr. Alice: Exactly. With a lot of elderly people, their kids are gone. They may have lost a spouse already. Even if they have relatives, that animal that they love, their companion animal, needs them. They are healthier because they know they need to get back. They just get well faster. They have the will to live to get back to their animals. Isn’t that amazing?
Helen: That is truly amazing.
There’s one question I jotted down that I want to make sure I ask you. I get it. Pets are so important in our lives. When someone is meeting a new patient or taking a health history, I don’t think people routinely ask about any animals that are important to them. Is that something you might recommend?
Dr. Alice: That should be in every healthcare professional’s questionnaire.
Helen: How would you word that?
Dr. Alice: “Do you have a companion animal that you love that depends upon you?” Animals have actually been discarded by healthcare workers when they transfer people from their homes into another living facility. They just say, “Get rid of the animals.”
That is like getting rid of your heart and soul. Many people go into depression, and the healthcare workers don’t even know why that is happening.
The people will say, “I don’t want to lose Fufu,” but they tend to trivialize this relationship. It should never be trivialized. It should be regarded as probably the most important relationship that person has because that animal is sleeping and eating with them. They get up to feed that animal and go out to walk the animal. Their purpose in their life routine is often centered on the animal.
Suddenly, that animal is supposed to be disposed of? That’s an outrage. It’s an atrocity to the sensibilities. Healthcare workers need to be more aware of the human-animal bond when they’re dealing with old people and telling them to move and get rid of their companion animal.
Helen: I get it. You’ve got this listening audience. All of our listeners are out there. Many of us are in positions of influence, whether it’s in a clinical setting, public health setting or another type of advocacy setting. What would be on your wish list for us to do to respect this human-animal bond?
Dr. Alice: First, understand it. Second, understand its importance, and third, make accommodations so that the relationship that they have will continue.
Some type of accommodation can be made instead of just saying, “Get rid of them.” Wherever that pet goes, if it cannot go into the facility, that pet should be coming to visit daily if not every other day. That is what they will live for. They will live for that visit from their special pet.
Do you know about the AIDS patients that were told, “Get rid of your animals because they are causing you to have infections?”
Helen: I didn’t know that. I know somebody who is an AIDS dog walker. Tell us more about that.
Dr. Alice: There is an organization called PAWS. It’s all about keeping the animal with the person that is sick. It started out for helping AIDS patients keep their animals and to help them stay in their homes as long as possible. That’s where the animal is most likely to be able to stay. If the ill person has to move into a facility, quite often the animal has no place to live.
There are volunteers who walk these dogs and cats and take care of and feed them. They bring food to them and help the AIDS patient keep that relationship going. Often, that’s what keeps the person alive longer and makes them feel so much more like they are involved in the relationships that they treasure.
It is PAWS, and there is one in every big city. There is PAWS L.A., PAWS San Francisco and PAWS New York. They are a wonderful group.
Helen: Thank you. We’ll put that on the website too. I’ve learned so much from you already about the human-animal bond. I’m just appreciating the depth of that. It’s sparking story after story of all these people I know, however they put animals into their lives and ways that it really is making a difference in healthcare and how people feel, live and have a purpose in their life.
I’m just curious. What animals do you have?
Dr. Alice: I have a typical collection that I think veterinarians have. I have a tortoise which is an African tortoise. He’ll live to be 150 years old and weigh 150 pounds. I have parrots that are long living, and then I have a kitty cat that is a rescue. She is a mama cat named Fern because she was found under the ferns with five kittens.
Fern is a rescue from a non-profit organization that I started in 1977 called The Peter Zippi Fund for Animals. We’ve placed over 12,500 animals in homes through this organization since 1977.
My husband brought home an Olde English Bulldog. He’s not old yet but that’s the name of the breed. They’re larger than a regular English bulldog. He weighs 85 amazing pounds.
Just this weekend we were at the Hero Dog Awards for the American Humane Society, and they honored so many wonderful dogs. There were military dogs, service dogs, canine dogs and dogs that were at 9/11. I always look at my bulldog and say, “What can you do?” I certainly have the typical menagerie.
For your healthcare workers to know, there is literature out there that shows when a person is petting a purring cat on their lap, their blood pressure drops. Their heart rate goes down and they feel calmer. There is a whole movement to prescribe pets instead of pills to help people.
It is known that many people’s anxieties and tensions are relieved if they have an animal to play with as an outlet for their goodness and the loving side of their personality. They often don’t get a chance to express it unless they have an animal. These are great ways for healthcare workers to understand how beneficial having an animal is.
There is a group I want to make sure you know about called Eden House. They actually have set aside a whole philosophy and road map on how to have a pet in a rest home, what the qualifications should be and how the pet should respond and be trained, etc.
Rest homes are now adopting animals for the community that is in the rest home. The animals are there every day. They live there and visit each person.
I’m sure you have heard about that special cat that they called the angel. He lived in a rest home and would know when a person was going to depart. He would stay on their bed. That’s when the nurses or doctors would call the family and say, “It’s time.”
No one would know, but now the kitty would stay there. They said, “You need to come because it’s probably going to be within a day or two or three that your parent or great-grandmother is going to be departing.” Isn’t that something? Animals have senses that are beyond our comprehension.
Helen: That is so wonderful. I have just learned so much from you. You talked about how animals bring out that loving side of our personality. This conversation with you has just engendered all of these warm, fuzzy, extra-caring feelings on my part. I thank you so much for sharing this with our listeners at Health Literacy Out Loud.
If people want to learn more, I know you have several websites. Is there any other contact information you want to make sure they hear right now?
Dr. Alice: I would say The Human-Animal Bond Association and the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. We have a website and there are links to various other groups. There is the Delta Society, of course Eden House and PAWS. These are big groups that are national and can help the healthcare worker and communicator with their job.
If you have a dog and you bring your dog with you on your rounds, and it is trained to be calm and sweet, you might even get a Canine Good Citizen certification for your dog or even a Delta certification. Bring your dog with you on your consultations. The dog wears a vest and is very official. They know what they’re doing. You would be surprise how much more fun your job is.
Helen: I’m just having fun doing this. As I told you when I was planning this podcast, I wasn’t sure where this was going to go with a veterinarian when we talk about health literacy. I get it. Thank you so much, Dr. Alice.
Dr. Alice: You’re very welcome.
Helen: As you can tell from this conversation, I’ve learned so much from Dr. Alice Villalobos. I sure hope that you did too.
Health literacy isn’t always easy. For help clearly communicating your health message, please visit my health literacy consulting website at www.HealthLiteracy.com. While you are there, feel free to sign up for the free e-newsletter, “What’s New in Health Literacy Consulting.”
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Did you like this podcast? Did you learn something new? If so, tell your colleagues and your friends. Together, let’s tell the whole world why health literacy matters. Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.