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Senior Citizen's Guide to Pittsburgh

Four-Legged Volunteers Bring Furry Friendship to Hospice Patients

Each week on the popular TV show “Lassie,” the lovable pet saved his family and friends from wells, fires and other dangers. The show demonstrated in dramatic fashion what hospice patients experience every day – the comfort and love shown by our four-legged friends.

VITAS Paw Pals is a team of loving pets—and their owners—who are specially trained to provide comfort and a special kind of friendship to hospice patients. Paw Pals and their owners visit patients in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and private homes. Their owners range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. Indeed, the therapeutic use of pets has gained more attention and widespread acceptance in recent years as it continues to bring measurable benefits to hospice patients.

Healthcare experts say that hospice patients are noticeably more active and responsive during and after animal visits. Stroking dogs and cats has proven to reduce people’s blood pressure and make it easier for people to talk.

“Animals provide a constant source of comfort by making people feel safe and unconditionally accepted,” said Amanda Olson, volunteer services manager for VITAS Innovative Hospice Care of Pittsburgh. “We can just be ourselves around our pets.”

Paw Pals visits can provide hospice patients with a welcome change from routine, says Olson, and often bring back fond memories and generate lots of smiles and laughter.

Much like it uses for its human volunteers, VITAS has a screening process for its four-legged volunteers. Animals must be well-behaved, well-groomed and healthy and must successfully complete “interviews” with VITAS personnel to make sure they have docile personalities and can handle wheelchairs, walkers, and canes. In addition, their owners must complete the VITAS Volunteer Training Program.

“Paw Pals volunteers alleviate loneliness with their unconditional love,” Olson said. “There’s nothing like it.”

For more information on becoming a VITAS Volunteer, visit In the Pittsburgh area, call Amanda Olson at 412.798.2101.

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