Chemistry Between Pets and Patients

Times Staff Writer

It isn't every doctor's office that comes equipped with hot and cold running pets.

But for the last eight years, Janet Ruckert has kept them on the Westwood premises where she is a licensed psychologist.

Thereby hangs a tail.

Their presence has made such an impact, she said, that on days when she doesn't happen to bring any pets along, more than one patient has been heard to ask: "Why aren't your co-therapists working today?"

"I had been seeing people on the Westside since 1966," said Ruckert, who has a doctorate from UCLA. "My patients have been anybody trying to cope with ordinary life problems--marriage, family, job stress, divorce, loneliness, getting older.

"In 1980, I had been working several weeks with a little girl, about 8 years old--call her Cathy. Her parents had divorced, and her mother brought her to me because the girl wasn't doing well at school and wasn't making friends either. She had changed."

The child wouldn't talk about missing her dad. He had moved away, had started a new family, and she would see him on Sundays. "She wouldn't talk about the pain," the psychologist said.

"So I had been working with her, we had been talking, we were making a relationship--but she wouldn't express her feelings about her dad."

That particular day, Ruckert had planned to take one of her three Burmese cats, Clancy, to a veterinarian for de-fleaing and had run out of time. So she parked him in the office.

"When the girl arrived, I told her about the de-fleaing, and I said I hoped she didn't mind cats. She went over, picked up Clancy and brought him to the sofa where she was sitting, put him on her lap and began petting him."

Before the psychologist realized what was happening, the patient began to say things she hadn't said before--about how much she missed her father, and she began to cry--all the while stroking the cat.

"It was a productive session," Ruckert recalled. "Before her therapy could move, she had to express her feelings. She had learned to put on a facade, a defense. Clancy broke through the defense."

The doctor said, however, that "it didn't occur to me at the time that the touching of the cat could trigger this kind of expression of feeling that I hadn't yet been able to get to. I probably would have gotten to it, but it might have taken more time."

Homey Atmosphere

Some months later, Ruckert got a Rottweiler pup, Lorelei. Not wanting to leave it alone at home, the doctor brought the animal to the office, and taught it to stay in a corner.

"It gave the place a homey feeling. The animal was sort of like having a fireplace going.

"Sometimes there would be a whimper, somebody would ask what it was, and I would explain that I didn't want the dog to be lonesome at home."

Nobody ever objected to the third party in the room. There were patients who mostly ignored the four-footed visitor, Ruckert said, although she noted that everyone would say hello and goodby to the dog. More importantly, though, more and more instances similar to Clancy and the girl were beginning to manifest themselves.

"One patient who came in was a fast-moving executive woman who had gotten a divorce and was having difficulty in setting up new relationships," Ruckert said. "And she was having difficulty at work, because she was tense and was a perfectionist.

"She was very intellectual and controlled. She would come in, and she had her 50 minutes, and she would say it's this and it's that, and I want to do this and that. I couldn't break through this kind of logical, controlled pattern.

"I wanted her to be able to express the tender feelings. I wanted her to express the kind of softness, the kind of needs she had for relationships--and she was running an executive program on me."

Unexpectedly, Lorelei wandered over and began nudging the patient, who responded by petting the dog. "Lorelei intruded on her in a way that I had not been successful. She stopped the woman from running this executive program while here. While petting the dog, the patient got off track.

"As an executive, she had come in with a problem-solving approach. Now she softened up and gave me what I was looking for--how she felt, not what was going to be."

After similar successful sessions with others, the psychologist realized she was onto something, that her patients were responding to the dogs and cats. "In the mornings, I would begin asking myself which animal I should bring that day," she said.

In her new book, "The Four-Footed Therapist" (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, $7.95), Ruckert describes what she calls "petcology,"--the value of using the relationship of pets and people to improve everyday life.

Natural Therapists

"Animals are natural therapists," she said in an interview discussing her findings during the decade. "During a session, not only does their presence allow a patient to express deep emotions and psychological needs more easily, but at home they are warm and sympathetic listeners."

The doctor mentioned a study by the veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania that found 98% of pet owners spent time talking to their animals. And 94% said they talked to their pet "as a person."

There are, Ruckert explained, certain kinds of people for whom the presence of animals in her office works best:

- A person whose childhood included the presence of pets.

- Someone who currently has one.

Clancy the cat died, but the psychologist still has two other Burmese, named Merlin and Casey, and, in addition to Lorelei, has another Rottweiler named Delilah.

Are there certain types of dogs better suited for this unique purpose?

"You need ones that are stable, mellow, affectionate and confident," Ruckert explained. "You wouldn't want one that was too aggressive or a yapper.

"As for cats in this role, you don't want a one-person cat. You want to bring a pet that is outgoing and likes to relate to people. Most cats will purr when stroked, and this gives a patient an immediate reinforcement."

Ruckert doesn't claim to be the only therapist who has found success in using animals in treatment, although no statistics are available.

A paper delivered in 1981 in Philadelphia at the International Conference on the Human-Companion Bond dealt with the value of watching tropical fish to reduce blood pressure.

It has become almost common now for convalescent hospitals to have something other than humans on the premises. For instance, Hillhaven Convalescent Hospital in Orange used to have Muttly, a part golden retriever, whose presence, according to activities director Nora Johnson, was effective in drawing out an elderly man with Alzheimer's disease.

"But the dog became destructive to our screens, and so now we keep a cockateel on hand," she said. "There is one woman, in particular, with Alzheimer's, who likes to keep the cage in her lap and talk to the bird. And we have visiting dogs brought by staff members and others, and the dogs make the rounds of the patients."

Studies have shown a relationship between pet ownership and recovery from severe heart disease, even finding that the mortality rate among people afflicted with coronary disease and owning pets is one-third lower than those who don't have pets.

Ruckert said she never brings along all four of her co-therapists on one day--and doesn't bring any at all for a beginning session:

"I don't want the person talking to the animal, I want the person talking to me."

One exception, she said, is if a new patient happens to be a teen-ager:

"Most teen-agers don't want to come to a therapist," she said. "They are at a period in their lives when they want to do their own thing, and here the parents are again telling them what to do.

"So when they walk in and see a cat or a dog, they can talk to the animal before they may be willing to talk to me. And often they reach the conclusion that this shrink can't be all bad.

"If somebody is sad, the dog often will walk up and rest her head on the person's leg, as if she can sense the sadness," Ruckert said.

"No worry about the cats coming over right away," she added. "I think cats instinctively know when they are liked and appreciated, and will ignore somebody they feel doesn't like them. You know how cats can wait. They know that sooner or later somebody will come along who will be a friend."

The psychologist said the therapeutic value of pets works as well at home as it does in her office, and she had a prediction:

"Five years from now, doctors will be prescribing the stroking of a home animal two times a day."

Take two pets and call in the morning.

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