Personal Pet Visits Ease Stress Of Hospitalization

By  //  August 5, 2012

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Patient-Centered Healthcare

BREVARD COUNTY, FL–Hospitals and other healthcare facilities have long had pet therapy programs, where approved therapy animals are brought in to offer comfort to patients. A 2011 American Hospital Association study showed that such programs are now the most common alternative medicine offerings available to patients, ahead of massage, art and music therapy.

Growing Number Of Hospitals Allowing Personal Pet Visitations

According to a recent report in the Baltimore Sun, an increasing number of hospitals across the country, including Mayo Clinic and the University of Maryland Medical Center, are allowing patients’ own pets to visit their owners in the hospital.

Animals are natural therapists. Their presence, affection, and simple needs give us a feeling of well-being, safety and security.

“Allowing people’s own pets to visit is a logical extension of the pet therapy programs, which research has shown to be effective in lowering blood pressure, promoting relaxation, and alleviating feelings of loneliness,” said Patti Donahue, Director of Women’s & Children’s Services and Dialysis at Holmes Regional Medical Center and one of the authors of the original Health First policy and procedure relating to facility pet therapy and personal pet visits in 1997.

“People have an intense bond with their pets and both patient and pet seem to suffer during prolonged periods apart,” added Donahue, a Registered Nurse and avid patient advocate at Holmes for over 29 years. “Meeting the emotional and psychological needs of our patients is priority, and if allowing someone to see a pet will bring joy, a sense of calm and normalcy, and perhaps hasten recovery, then it’s our duty to pave the way for that visit.”

Feline Friend Visit Helped Turn The Corner

Brian and Patti Donahue holding their shitzu, Cinder Ella, and Pepper, the cat who played an integral part in Brian's hospital recovery in 2005.

Donahue and her family were touched first hand by the compelling effect of a personal pet visitation when her husband, Brian was admitted in critical condition from his chronic and very serious heart condition to HRMC in October of 2005. Shortly after his admission he was transferred to Shands Medical Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville for what the experts thought would be a need for a heart transplant. Fortunately, after several weeks of intensive care, he turned the corner and did not have to undergo a transplant. However, when he returned to Melbourne in December his condition still required very close monitoring in the hospital.

The eight week ordeal left him depressed and barely communicative. According to his wife, Patti, “It wasn’t until we brought our beloved cat, Pepper, to the hospital for a visit that Brian started to perk up.  As soon as Pepper snuggled up with him you could see the release of tension in his face and a sense of overall relaxation–that two hour visit definitely was an important step in Brian’s recovery. Not only were Brian’s spirits lifted, but that visit also lifted my entire family’s spirits as well as the hospital staff’s.”

Makes Them Smile And, Hopefully, Enhance Their Hospital Experience

Animals are natural therapists. Their presence, affection, and simple needs give us a feeling of well-being, safety and security. Focus on a familiar and beloved “friend” helps to momentarily divert a patient’s attention from their emotional and physical challenges of a hospital stay, and has been shown to increase awareness and communication, and elicit smiles.

Studies show that pet therapy programs are now the most common alternative medicine offerings available to patients, ahead of massage, art and music therapy. Both certified therapy dogs, like the ones above, and personal pets can do wonders for patients struggling with disease and illness by momentarily diverting a patient's attention from their emotional and physical challenges of a hospital stay, and eliciting smiles. (Image courtesy of Space Coast Medicine)

There is a national focus on a patient’s assessment of and satisfaction with their experience in the hospital. Although I can not site any specific research to confirm that personal pet visitations enhance the hospital experience that may be reflected in official structured patient surveys, my intuition as a physician who has focused on patient satisfaction for over 30 years tells me that the opportunity to commune with a “best friend” during a prolonged and stressful hospitalization would motivate patients to score a hospital very high in the “recognized and met my needs” rating.

Personal pet visitation requirements at Health First are very similar to most other facilities and include:

  • Only healthy, well groomed dog or cat visits with up-to-date vaccinations and vet check
  • Only one animal at a time may visit
  • Approval of the physician and unit manager
  • Pet transported in a carrier or on a leash

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