Pet Therapy: Some Hospitals Allow Patients' Own Dogs to Visit

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Dog Visits Safe if Precautions Taken

Dr. Loreen Herwaldt, a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Colleges of Medicine and Public Health, and Jean Pottinger, an infection prevention expert for University of Iowa Healthcare, helped bring the personal pet policy to their hospitals. Pottinger, too, said there have never been any infections that were attributable to animals at her hospital. And she said there has been no documentation of any bad outcomes from pet visits in her hospital.

Herwaldt said there is likely good reason for the lack of infections from the animals. "[The patients] were living in very close contact with these animals before they came in and have been exposed to the organisms the animal is carrying," she said. "They will be going back to that environment as well. We make sure [the patients] wash their hands before and after the visit."

Hospitals take other precautions to reduce any risk of infection. Barriers are placed between animals and bedsheets, and the sheets are changed after the animal leaves.

The experience has been positive for patients, said Donna Dishman, co-founder and executive director of PAWS Houston. She said the first personal pet visit was remarkable. The patient was an 83-year-old woman in intensive care, diagnosed with breast cancer.

"[She] was not eating, not responding, and had given up," Dishman said. "When we put her dog on her bed, she started talking, and started eating."

"Often there are people who are not doing well, and don't respond to staff and people but for some reason make an effort to speak when animals come around," said Dr. Lisa Portnoy, a veterinarian and animal program director for the NIH Clinical Center.

Such programs may become even more common as hospitals strive to find special ways to meet the needs of patients and their families.

"I think that when we think about a patient-centered environment, we have to think about what is meaningful to health and well-being to the patient," said Linda Laskowski Jones, Christiana Care Health System's Vice President of Emergency and Trauma Services in Delaware, where a personal pet visitation policy is also in place. "The framework has to include animals. That is important to health and recovery and comfort."

For Tabitha Fleaks, having their family dog visit was comforting to her as well as to her daughter.

"I'm here every single day [with my daughter] and my dogs are a part of our family," she said. "It made my day to see our dog because I'm so used to seeing them all day long in my house and it made it feel more like home."

Madison, who had a heart transplant a few weeks ago, will be discharged from the hospital this week.

"Every day when you say, 'Where is Kodiak? Where did he go? Where is he?' she points to the door. It was the biggest blessing for her to see him," Fleaks said.

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