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Pets as important as ever to seniors' wellness

Stan Fuller's bond with Pachi, his Shih Tzu-terrier cross, adds companionship and cheer to his life. Photo: Kate Wilson

Pachi, an inquisitive Shih Tzu-terrier cross, approaches strangers with a happy wag of her tail. The fact that she’s 13 years old has her owner, Stan Fuller, apprehensive about what’s to come. 

“I would not be the same person without this dog,” he said. “She spends every moment with me. It really bothers me that she’s thirteen.” 

A semi-retired transportation safety specialist in Edmonton, Fuller’s medical issues and cataract surgery kept him housebound starting in late November. He was just ready to return to work in March when COVID-19 cancelled any recall hours, so his home stay was extended until July. 

“That dog has been a life saver for me--she is the most affectionate little dog,” said Fuller. 

The invaluable companionship between Fuller and his pet is reflective of many seniors who have found themselves housebound over the past four months. 

Having the unconditional love of a canine friend helps people young and old combat stress and depression, according to Katrina Secord, program coordinator with Chimo Animal Assisted Wellness and Learning Society (CAAWLS) in Edmonton. 

“Our services can decrease people's anxiety, improve social interactions and increase motivation,” she said. “(Senior facility residents) show up when they know we're coming.”

Unfortunately, CAAWLS stopped making visits to seniors centres March 1, two weeks before the community-wide shutdown. It restarted in July “with extreme caution and a number of safety protocols”. Now, besides social distancing and mask-use, volunteer dog owners must be screened for COVID-19 the day before a visit, as well as washing their garb before and afterwards. 

“A number of our volunteers are 65-plus and won't be volunteering until they feel comfortable and safe returning, which could be months or never,” said Secord.  

In normal times, CAAWLS visits schools, seniors facilities and at inner city programs. As of mid-July, it had only returned to two women’s shelters, where outdoor space is available.

Placements at seniors centres had just expanded when COVID-19 hit. Secord said the best arrangement was when the same volunteer and canine companion came every time, creating a bond between animal and residents. 

She recalled training a new volunteer team at one seniors home. There, a resident with dementia was especially fond of Dug, a friendly golden retriever.

“He sat by her as she gave him pets with the biggest smile on her face. She reminisced about the dogs she had owned in the past on the farm she grew up on,” said Secord. “That is the power of animal-assisted wellness.” 

When the lockdown happened, many CAAWLS volunteers wanted to continue helping seniors with visits outside windows. Secord plans to do that again upon the return to seniors lodges. 

Elsewhere, humane societies have modified their adoption processes. The Calgary Humane Society, for one, has gone to an online format and is offering virtual classes. 

Veterinarians and dog groomers are also cautious as they welcome returning customers. Walk-ins are on hold, and one vet clinic in Edmonton has implemented a two-team strategy, in case any staff test positive for COVID-19.

In Calgary, city parks and off-leash areas are open with physical distancing in place. Unfenced parks in Edmonton reverted back to off-leash in early May while fenced dog parks that were closed due to COVID-19 re-opened in mid July.

“Users are reminded to keep 2 metres apart and follow guidelines including limited gathering size, proper hygiene like coughing into their elbows, and staying home if they feel sick,” stressed Zak Fairbrother, communications advisor with Edmonton’s parks and roads service. 

“We know getting outside is critical for pet and owner,” said Fairbrother. “It's a major contributor to mental and physical health and wellbeing.”

Veterinary and pet grooming services in Alberta are open again, with some or all of the following precautions:   

  • Reduced hours
  • Appointment only, no walk-ins
  • Sectioned-off waiting rooms (vet)
  • drop-off in cage outside building (pet groomers)
  • Pick-up from your vehicle
  • Curb side pick-up of medicine (vet)
  • Online consultations (vet)
  • No-touch payments (pet groomers)