Licensed Professional Counselor Peggy Kelley has created a reputable program at Parkside Psychiatric Hospital and Clinic that uses animals — from dogs to crabs to a bearded dragon — to help patients dealing with conditions such as anxiety and panic attacks.
Kelley cares for the animals, who live on site. Although she doesn’t have any veterinary training, she discovered the benefits of animal therapy as an outpatient therapist working with foster children. "I realized that many of the patients were hurting animals or killing them," Kelley explains. "I grew up with animals all my life. I thought they just did not know how to be around animals." She did some research, started with a rabbit and a guinea pig, and saw positive results. That was 32 years ago.
Just like people, different pets connect with different patients, Kelley says. Younger patients love to play with the red-eared slider and box turtles, while patients on the autism spectrum often gravitate toward the fiddler and hermit crabs.
Patients battling depression love the program’s dogs and guinea pigs — and patients with anxiety love the bunnies in particular. Interestingly, the most obscure animals seem to reach the most difficult patients.
"I’ve used California snails before — that’s what they use for escargot," Kelley says. "We raced them, and they were surprisingly fast. The kids I was treating became obsessed with them and it was like, for once, they got to be kids again." The snails helped patients who felt rejected connect to their feelings while Kelley facilitated discussion around what makes those animals uniquely beautiful and special.
Soon, Parkside’s pet therapy and other therapeutic services will expand into a new clinic — a project that broke ground in July — ensuring the animals will continue to help patients make strides in treatment. But patients aren’t the only ones who benefit.
"I’ve noticed that when I have the pets with me," Kelley says, "they help me get closer, emotionally and mentally, to my patients. I can relate more, and it helps me pick up things that change my approach all the time."