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Munchkin the miniature horse is ready to comfort patients at the Mayo Clinic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

These days, it's not unusual to see a therapy dog in a hospital, nursing home or even a courthouse to help people experiencing illness or trauma find some comfort. Well, there's a different four-legged friend wandering the halls of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, which recently held a dog and pony show to introduce the latest addition to their animal team. Minnesota Public Radio's Catharine Richert reports.

CATHARINE RICHERT, BYLINE: OK, so no dogs, actually, but one very small miniature horse named Munchkin - the newest member of Mayo's stable of therapy animals. He's getting some love and attention from nurse Kathy Boyle.

KATHY BOYLE: Hi, baby. How are you? Oh, my God, you're so cute.

RICHERT: Boyle is one of dozens of Mayo Clinic employees and visitors who are gathering around Munchkin, who's just over two feet tall with a snowy mane and, perhaps appropriately, a white coat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That is amazing.

RICHERT: He really draws a crowd with his tiny boots to prevent him from slipping on the hospital's tiled floors and his official Mayo employee badge, just in case you had any questions about who this small guy is. In her job overseeing Mayo's breast cancer nurses, Boyle says Mayo's therapy dogs often visit. And it's as therapeutic for the patients as it is for her staff, where moments of total joy can be few and far between.

WHITNEY ROMINE: We got to see the dog today. There's, like, three or four dogs that come and visit them, and they just love it.

RICHERT: So why add Munchkin to the mix?

ROMINE: Well, first, he's cute, right (laughter)?

RICHERT: That's Whitney Romine, Mayo's animal assistance services coordinator. She says bringing Munchkin in solves some practical problems the therapy dogs present.

ROMINE: There are instances where people might be afraid of dogs or allergic to dogs. So adding an additional species increases our options that we can offer to patients.

RICHERT: Handler Amanda Peters says that being a therapy equine runs in Munchkin's blood. His mom did the same thing. Plus, he's potty trained.

AMANDA PETERS: He knows not to go in the house. And we just make sure, too, his feeding schedule is such that he doesn't have to go when he's inside.

RICHERT: Romine recalls training a therapy dog a few years ago, when an employee stopped her in the hallway and asked to sit with the pup.

ROMINE: So we paused, and the dog was wonderful. We sat down on the floor. He just leaned into the guy, and you could just see his face light up. And he says, thanks so much for the visit. As he's walking away, you kind of see a little bounce in his step and he says, this high is going to sustain me for the next six months.

RICHERT: In a place that can be awash with hard news, Romine says seeing Mayo patients and staff light up around the animals is the best part of her job.

For NPR News, I'm Catharine Richert in Rochester, Minn.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL BUHO AND BARRIO LINDO'S "ORINOCO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Catharine Richert