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Iguanas are not usually the prescribed treatment for terminal illness, but at a nearby children's recovery center, the reptiles are filling the doctor's orders. At least two times each month, Veterinary School students involved in the Vet-Pet Program take iguanas, dogs and guinea pigs to the Ronald McDonald House, located at 3925 Chestnut Street, to interact with the children who are being treated for serious illness. And student participants, who bring their own pets, say that while some children are initially skeptical, they soon warm up to the animals. "There was one little boy who was receiving chemo[therapy] and when he saw the iguana, he was afraid to touch it at first," recalled third-year Veterinary student Mindy Cohan, organizer of the Vet-Pet Program. "But by the time the night was over, it was crawling all over him and he was really happy." The children at the center suffer from disorders ranging from cancer to facial disfigurements, and stay for the duration of their treatment. But being with the animals makes them forget their troubles for a few hours, Cohan said. "I know the animals help these kids, because I know how they help me when I'm stressed," she said. In addition to the psychological benefits the patients receive, "just holding a pet lowers your blood pressure," she said. Each hour-long visit begins when the students arrive at the house in the evening with their pet. "Basically, the kids just get to play with the animals," she said. The visits also include group activities such as "mystery pet," in which the kids try to identify a hidden animal from the clues the students give them. "We bring some animals they haven't seen before," Cohan said. "Last time, it was a ferret. They were able to guess it after we told them it started with an 'F.' " Cohan said students are careful that the animals they bring to the house are perfectly safe and will not harm, nor be harmed by, the children. "The pets we bring over are highly scrutinized because of the possible diseases they can carry," she said. The students are careful to avoid birds, because they often carry respiratory diseases even when they look healthy, and cats, because they can carry "toxoplasmosis," a parasite which can attack "immunologically suppressed" individuals. Cats are also avoided because they can scratch the children. Some unlikely pets rank as the childrens' favorite, along with the expected dogs, fish and guinea pigs. "Actually, the snakes are some of their favorites," Cohan explained. She said that the student volunteers get a reward from the experience as well. "I always feel very good as I'm leaving the house," she said. "I look at these kids and I realize how fortunate I am." Cohan said that she hopes the program is continued by future Veterinary students. "It's basically something that's good for them and good for me as well," she said. "It's good for me to be able to take time from my busy schedule." The program received rave reviews from children at the house. "I like the puppy dogs because I want to pet them," four-year-old Hugo Ramirez said. But Ramirez wasn't so fond of the iguana that the students brought to the House. He was afraid of it, "because it had big teeth." Six-year-old Alex Ogilvie said he also liked the dogs, especially one named Ninja, "because they have nice fur and I like to pet them." Ogilvie was also fascinated by the ferret, the mystery pet. "I like how they stretch and bring their feet up to their heads," he said.

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