Rehab Center Uses Llamas To Help Comfort Residents

After a visit with the llamas, the patients' blood pressure is lower.

You've probably heard of therapy dogs providing comfort and support to people, but therapy llamas? Might be a stretch.

But, that's just what patients at the Stockdale Residence and Rehabilitation Center in San Antonio, TX got to experience last week when farmer Carol Rutledge brought a duo of llamas in to spread some holiday cheer.

Carol Rutledge (R) with daughter Zoe and friend.

The residents were overjoyed to get some one-on-one time with the 300-pound animals, including Bill Smallwood, who was disabled from a motorcycle accident. While Smallwood is mostly non-verbal, when he sees the llamas he murmurs and makes noises similar to words. He was all smiles as he ran a brush through the llama's thick fur.

Rutledge's daughter Zoe has been working on a school project for a science competition where she measures the blood pressure of the residents before and after bringing the llamas in for a visit. Most of the time, their blood pressure was lower after the llamas left, and they seemed to be happier overall.

Bobbie West, the center's activities director, said she's seen the positive effects of the llama visits in action.

"They love the llamas," she told the New York Times . "One lady, she can be in the foulest of moods, and when the llamas come, she just gets a whole new aura to her."

While llama therapy certainly seems to be successful, Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist and professor at Western Carolina University, thinks the research is too limited to say for sure. He says there's a big difference between what the public believes about working with therapy animals and what the science shows.

"The evidence for the short-term, probably transient, effects of interacting with animals in nursing homes or for autistic kids is quite good, petting a dog, or interacting with a llama, stress levels go down," Dr. Herzog said. "But when we think of therapy, we think about long-term treatment, and I think the evidence for that is mixed."

While Herzog agrees that if the outcome of people interacting with llamas makes them feel better, then it's a good thing, but he wouldn't necessarily call it therapy.

Zoe says it's important to choose the right animals for the job. Out of the 13 llamas and alpacas that are on her parents' farm, only three have passed the qualifying exam to become registered therapy animals.

"You look for the ones that are mellow and calm," she said.

Therapy or not, it's hard not to smile at the gentle, doe-eyed creatures that seem to love getting hugs and have the softest fur. Just ask the residents at the Stockdale Center, who can't stop grinning and laughing when they're around.

"I think they're darling," one elderly woman said. "I love them."

Inspired to work with therapy animals after reading this story? Check out Pet Partners, a national organization that offers opportunities to learn more about the field, volunteer your own pet as a therapy animal, or donate to keep the program running .

Let's #StartSomethingGood together.

(Source: images Stockdale Residence & Rehab Center Facebook )

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