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Health & Balance

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Hospital Pet Programs Unleash Healing Powers

Benefits to Patients continued...

A visit from one's pet is especially meaningful for patients who are depressed, says Deborah Stein, MD, MPH, chief of the section of trauma critical care at the University of Maryland's R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Before the University of Maryland Medical Center began its pet visitation program in 2008, Stein, a dog lover, helped get approval to reunite two of her spinal-cord-injured patients with their dogs at the Shock Trauma Center. Although both patients were paralyzed from the neck down, they were mentally aware and were able to be close to their dogs during the short visits, she says.

"It did wonders for these patients to be able to gain a little bit of normalcy. The expression on the patient's face was wonderful," Stein says. These good feelings tend to linger after the pet leave, she says.

A pet visit may also have social effects that can improve care. There is anecdotal evidence that after a pet visits, the patient may open up and communicate better with care providers, says Jane Rosenman, MD, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center in Rochester, Minn.

Preventing Problems

The Mayo Clinic's pet visitation policy has been in place for at least 20 years at its Minnesota campus and is part of its complementary and integrative medicine program, says program coordinator Barb Thomley.

As is typical of hospital pet-visiting programs, the Mayo Clinic requires family and staff to get approval from the patient's doctor, schedule the visit ahead of time, and limit the in-room visit to two hours so the patient does not become overly fatigued. The Mayo Clinic does not allow pets to visit if the patient has open wounds that cannot be covered or if the patient's immunity is low.

Hospitals that allow pet visits, most often limited to a single dog or cat, have a long list of requirements for the visiting animal. Typically the pet must:

  • Be healthy and free of parasites
  • Have proof of up-to-date rabies vaccination
  • Be bathed and groomed within 24 hours of the visit
  • Not have been fed within two hours of the visit
  • Be transported in a carrier or on a leash
  • Have an accompanying adult handler at all times
  • Not interact with other patients

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