“A guinea pig as a therapy animal? You’re kidding me!” That’s been the usual response from people when I tell them that I do animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy with guinea pigs. Then my patients meet Stuart or Calvin, and they are instantly smitten.

I’ve been a guinea pig fan – or fanatic – for about 10 years. I’m proud that my guinea pig Ralphie was the first registered Pet Partners therapy guinea pig in New England. Ralphie was a rock star, and even though he passed away in 2015, I meet people who still carry his Pet Partners trading card with them today!

Now, my partners are the debonair Stuart and spunky Calvin (who looks like a cross between a skunk and a panda). Stuart was officially registered as a Pet Partners therapy animal in 2016, Calvin in 2017, and we’ve continued Ralphie’s legacy, visiting adult psychiatric facilities and doing stress relief events at many of Boston’s colleges and universities. Stuart’s even been to Harvard!

Early on as a therapy animal team with Ralphie, there was a unique experience that changed my life, moving me to pursue animal-assisted therapy professionally. A young man with a violent history came to be one of Ralphie’s most fervent fans during our visits to the Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Health Center in Boston. The staff was surprised by his behavior with Ralphie. He was the most tender and loving patient with Ralphie. One day, he started talking to me about some deeply personal issues, and I realized that in my status as a volunteer, there was nothing I could do to further engage him. And it made me realize that as a team, Ralphie and I could have a profoundly positive impact on a patient.

I applied and was accepted into an M.Ed. program in counseling psychology, which I completed in May of 2018, along with the certificate program in animals and human health from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. In my work as a mental health clinician and group therapist with patients who suffer from substance addiction disorders combined with mental health disorders, I facilitate animal-assisted therapy groups, which help patients discuss issues of trust, responsibility, and unconditional acceptance. I also continue to volunteer alongside Stuart and Calvin at facilities and events throughout the New England area.

In the course of these visits and work, patients and participants have truly fallen in love with Stuart and Calvin. We enjoy a good laugh from the usual comment, “Wow, they’re so BIG for hamsters!” This opens the opportunity to share the history, biology, habits, and personalities of guinea pigs. As prey animals, guinea pigs are instinctively alert and vulnerable – it’s been my opinion that it is this vulnerability, a reflection of many patients’ own sense of themselves in the world, that makes the therapy interactions so powerful.

 Story submitted by Niki Vettel