pet-therapyImagine you’re in the hospital and your doctor or nurse mentions that they have a pet therapy program and asks if you’d be interested in having a dog visit you. You say yes and soon thereafter a dog and its handler arrive. You interact with and pet the dog. After they’ve gone, you notice you feel lighter, happier and more relaxed and you can’t wait to tell your friends and family about your new furry friend.

Pet therapy or animal assisted therapy is a growing trend in healthcare which uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from and better cope with health problems as well as provide a sense of comfort and enjoyment for those in a hospital or healthcare facility. Animal assisted therapy can reduce pain, stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in people with a range of health problems.

Animals provide intangible benefits for mental health, relieving feelings of isolation and boredom as well as physically measurable benefits for example, lowering a patient’s blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, researchers discovered that in just a 12-minute visit with a therapy dog, heart and lung function improved “by lowering pressures, diminishing release of harmful hormones and decreasing anxiety among hospitalized heart failure patients… researchers also found that anxiety scores dropped 24 percent .”

In addition, in an editorial in the journal Critical Care a group of clinicians noted that pet therapy is an excellent example of a non-drug intervention that can help critically ill patients become more active participants in their own recovery. Providing pet therapy also demonstrates an important shift in the way we think about providing treatment in the hospital setting. Doctors and nurses have long had the mindset that giving patients the right medications will help them improve psychologically and physically. Shifting towards non-pharmaceutical interventions like animal assisted therapy, music therapy and relaxation training, in conjunction with proper pharmaceutical interventions, has been shown to further improve patients’ psychological status and increases activity, coping and involvement in their recovery.

One of the biggest concerns, specifically in a hospital setting when it comes to pet therapy is safety and sanitation. Most hospitals and other facilities that offer pet therapy programs have strict rules to ensure that the animals are clean, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior. It is also important to note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have never received a report of infection as a result of animal assisted therapy.

“We have been providing animal assisted activities at Mather Hospital for nearly 20 years,” said Jill Snelders, Assistant Director of Recreational Therapy. “We have seen an overwhelmingly positive response to this program from patients, family member and staff alike,” Snelders said. Dogs are known as man’s best friend for a reason. They are a great comfort, making people feel happier, calmer and more loved which is extremely important when you are scared and ill.