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Hospital Pet Programs Unleash Healing Powers

Medscape Medical News

March 8, 2013 -- A small but growing number of U.S. hospitals are expanding their visitation policies to allow supervised visits from furry family members.

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, one of the latest hospitals to adopt a visiting policy for pets, had its first patient-owned pet visit in February. Sadie the dachshund climbed onto the lap of her owner, Bernadette Slesinski-Evans, who from her hospital bed happily let her dog lick her face.

The visit took less than two days for staff to arrange, but the policy took almost three years to develop, says Diane Gallagher, RN, associate vice president of nursing operations at Rush. The challenge, she says, "was how to make the policy safe for patients, employees, and visitors without making it burdensome to implement."

"When you say 'hospital and dog,' it doesn't sound like it fits," Gallagher says. "The hospital is not a resort, but this is a therapeutic intervention. It's one more tool we have to help patients get through what must be some of their worst days."

Or in some cases, the patient's final days. Slesinski-Evans died weeks after her visit with Sadie. "I feel so lucky we were able to do this for her," Gallagher says.

She believes pet visiting programs, although becoming more common, are still controversial because not everyone likes animals or thinks they should be in a hospital. When she surveyed hospitals nationwide in 2010, Rush says she heard from only 12 hospitals that have similar programs.

Benefits to Patients

Citing extensive research showing that patients feel hope and joy from being near their pets, Gallagher says the benefit to the patient is worth the risks of a pet visit in the hospital. "It takes their mind off their stress and anxiety," she says.

Many studies have shown both physical and psychological good effects of animal-assisted therapy. Reported benefits include lowered blood pressure, less pain, more happiness, and motivation to get better, a review in the American Journal of Critical Care shows. Supporters of pet visitation programs, however, say hospitals need to go beyond long-standing policies of having therapy dogs, because patients prefer to see their own pets.

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.

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