January 13, 2020

Health care facilities sometimes turn to pets and other furry companions to help boost patients' spirits, and an unexpected player is growing in popularity on the nursing home scene: the llama, Jennifer Kingson reports for the New York Times.

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The rise of the rehab llama

While patients might expect to see a dog or a cat visit them at a rehabilitation center, llamas are becoming more common in therapeutic settings, such as nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities, Kingson reports.

At Pet Partners, a nationwide organization that provides therapeutic animals, 94% of the animals the organization works with are dogs, according to spokesperson Elisabeth Van Every. However, Van Every said the organization also works with about 20 llamas and alpacas—and most of that count is llamas, which are generally considered to be friendlier than alpacas, Kingson reports.

To become a registered therapy animal, the llamas undergo the same training as other animals and meet strict standards for health, grooming and work conditions, Kingson reports.

Why llamas?

According to Kingson, "the novelty factor is a big part of the appeal" of llamas and alpacas. 

The animals are also a good alternative for people who might think "dogs are a little too much, or [have] had a bad experience with them," according to Niki Kuklenski, a llama breeder in Washington.

But most llama owners claim that the animals are good therapy animals because they are particularly good with people, especially those who are sick or in need.

Kuklenski said her llamas, namely one named Flight, can "read people." Kuklenski explained, "[W]hen she goes into a setting where someone's really animated and excited to see her, she'll put her head down for a hug." If someone seems nervous, "Flight will stand stock still. She is very cool," Kuklenski said.

Occupational therapist Mona Sams, who has eight llamas and five alpacas at her practice in Virginia, said her animals are particularly good with children and adults with developmental disabilities. According to Sams, one llama named Woolly "literally sits there" with one patient who has severe cerebral palsy and seizures, "for a whole hour, face to face."

Are llamas really the best therapists?

But there's little evidence that visits from llamas have lasting positive effects on patients, Kingson reports.

Sams is the lead author on what might be the only published study on the use of llamas and alpacas as therapy animals, according to Kingson. The 2006 study observed children with autism who were either enrolled in standard occupational therapy or therapy with llamas. The study "indicated that the children engaged in significantly greater use of language and … social interaction in the occupational therapy sessions incorporating animals than in the standard occupational therapy sessions."

However, Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist and professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, said the results do not prove that animal-assisted therapy is particularly effective, especially long-term.

"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," he said. Still, Herzog said he "wouldn't call it therapy."

"[W]hen we think of therapy, we think about long-term treatment, and I think the evidence for that is mixed," he said. Herzog also said that is own research revealed somewhat different results. "As an animal lover myself, I really wanted to believe it too."

It is true that llama therapy doesn't always work, according to Kingson. Some patients are intimidated by the animals' stature and some llamas aren't made for the job.

Still, for some patients they seem to make a difference. Zoe Rutledge, a high school sophomore whose family raises therapy llamas, found that after the llamas visited nursing home residents, the residents' blood pressure would be lower. Rutledge also found that the residents seemed happier when visited by the animals.

"They love the llamas," said Bobbie West, the activities director for the home. "One lady, she can be in the foulest of moods, and when the llamas come, she just gets a whole new aura to her" (Kingson, New York Times, 11/14/19).

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