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Detroit Lakes care facility uses faux felines for real therapy

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - Many doctors, social workers and other healthcare professionals extol the benefits of pet companionship for people living alone - especially the elderly.

Much like real cats, these faux pets will meow, purr, blink their eyes, lift a paw and lick it or roll over to be petted. Vicki Gerdes / Forum News Service
Much like real cats, these faux pets will meow, purr, blink their eyes, lift a paw and lick it or roll over to be petted. Vicki Gerdes / Forum News Service

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – Many doctors, social workers and other healthcare professionals extol the benefits of pet companionship for people living alone – especially the elderly.

Ecumen-Detroit Lakes has long had a pet friendly policy, allowing long-term care residents who are able to care for an animal permission to have one live with them, once the pets have been determined to be well-trained and of a calm, people-friendly disposition.

"We've had both dogs and cats here," says Brenda Labine, activities director at Emmanuel Nursing Home, which is part of the Ecumen care complex.

But what about those who are physically or otherwise incapable of caring for a pet, due to allergies, disability or other concerns? Now they, too, can experience the affection of a pet, without the concerns that come along with them, thanks to an innovative new therapy tool.

Created by Hasbro, these "Joy for All Companion Pets" are "amazingly lifelike," says Ashley McNally, housing and home care director at Ecumen-Detroit Lakes.

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McNally purchased one of the faux pets online last fall. Before long, two more had been added for use by residents of both The Cottages and Emmanuel, the nearby nursing home.

"I think they're just lots of fun," says resident Vivian Lee, though not everyone agrees. "I have a real cat, named Maggie, and when I take this one (the Hasbro pet) in my room with me, she (Maggie) goes right under the bed."

Other residents also like to take the "pets" they have bonded with home at the end of the day, said Brenda Wickline, activities director at The Cottage.

"They think (the cats) are theirs," Wickline said. "Every day we have to go hunt for (the cats), because they'll take them home overnight and care for them."

"If anyone gets too attached, I would let their families know so they can think about getting them their own (real pet)," Labine said, noting that adding a pet as a permanent resident of the facility requires prior administrative approval, per Ecumen policy.

The only real restriction residents have on taking the pets, however, is that they have to keep them clean. "We don't let them have (the cats) at mealtimes," Wickline said.

"The best thing about these cats is ... no litter box!" joked Peter Gallatin, chaplain for Ecumen-DL, as he passed by during a recent "petting session" with the cats.

They also don't need to be fed and they don't trigger any pet allergies, Wickline noted, but they do purr, meow, blink their eyes, move their heads, lift their paws and "lick" them, even roll over on their backs to have their bellies rubbed or chins scratched.

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"They're even weighted similar to a real cat, so they feel real when they're sitting in your lap," Labine said.

"And even if you can't hear them purring (i.e., are deaf or hearing impaired), you can feel it," Wickline said. "They're good therapy cats."

"I often give them to someone who's having a bad day or feeling anxious," Labine added. "They'll sit down and pet the cat and immediately get happier ... it really reduces their anxiety."

"I'll leave them in the activity room and the residents pick them up, pet them, talk to them, sometimes carry them around with them," Wickline said.

"It's interesting to listen to them," added Labine. "Sometimes people who don't really talk that much will talk to the cat ... I also have one lady who has a hard time resting. When we give her the cat she'll put it in her lap, start talking to it, petting it, and pretty soon she falls asleep."

"Even the employees like to pet the kitties!" Wickline said with a laugh.

Related Topics: HEALTHPETSDETROIT LAKES
A reporter at Detroit Lakes Newspapers since relocating to the community in October 2000, Vicki was promoted to Community News Lead for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Perham Focus on Jan. 1, 2022. She has covered pretty much every "beat" that a reporter can be assigned, from county board and city council to entertainment, crime and even sports. Born and raised in Madelia, Minnesota, she is a graduate of Hamline University, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in English literature (writing concentration). You can reach her at vgerdes@dlnewspapers.com.
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