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Hospital Pet Programs Unleash Healing Powers

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

Some hospitals have additional requirements. For instance, the University of Maryland Medical Center asks that pets wear a coat or T-shirt to lessen shedding and dander. State laws on animal visits vary, with Minnesota not allowing animals younger than 1, according to the Mayo Clinic's policy.

Proper pet selection also is important for a safe visit. To ensure that a dog has a nonaggressive temperament, Rush University Medical Center has a staff member call the pet handler to ask whether the dog has ever growled at or bitten anyone, Gallagher says. A unit volunteer meets the pet handler and dog when they arrive at the hospital to make sure the animal is friendly. The hospital staff members inform the patient and pet handler that if the pet misbehaves or causes problems, the visit will end.

At Rush, as at other hospitals, a designated staff person must stay with the pet throughout the visit. In addition, pets cannot be in Rush's obstetrics or psychiatric units or the neonatal intensive care unit, Gallagher says.

Doggone Friendly

The Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio plans a different kind of pet-visiting program. The 500-bed hospital announced plans to break ground this spring for an attached pet-visiting center, which it calls "the first hospital-based, pet visitation center in the nation."

John Perentesis, MD, director of oncology at the children's hospital, suggested the addition after seeing a similar center at Alberta Children's Hospital in Canada. Pets will not need to be groomed or recently checked by a veterinarian -- policies required at some hospitals that he says are difficult for both the family and the pet.

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