Why we Want US Healthcare to go to the Dogs

Have you ever had to spend any time in the hospital as a patient?  If you have, it is likely that you may have experienced periods of feeling low, anxious, stressed, and frustrated as a result of your illness or injury and because of being away from family, friends, and your home. If any of this sounds like your hospital experience, you were not alone, as it is not uncommon for hospitalized patients to experience a downturn in mental wellbeing, sometimes with physiological changes too.

In order to counteract some of these multi-factor stressors that hospitalized patients experience, many hospitals have introduced a variety of therapeutic programs.  One program that you are increasingly likely to see on that list is animal-assisted therapy sometimes simply called pet therapy.

Why is animal-assisted therapy being used?

The idea of animal-assisted therapy is not new.  For many years, it was considered to be a “nice” thing for hospital patients to experience, but thanks to increasing amounts of research into the topic by clinicians, there has been proven to be a wider range of benefits.

boy-with-pet-therapy-dog

What are the benefits of animal-assisted therapy to patients?

An article by Cole, Gawlinski, Steers, and Kotlerman1 in the American Journal of Critical Care showed that when patients had only a 12-minute visit from a pet, there was an improvement in heart and lung function and a significant lowering of blood pressure, a reduction in the release of harmful hormones, and a decrease in anxiety.  The study was conducted with hospitalized heart failure patients. It indicated that there was far more benefit shown in those patients that received a visit from a pet than in those patients who were only visited by a human volunteer or those who were left alone.

Specifically, the benefits to patients of animal-assisted therapy include:

Mental health benefits

  • Reduced depression
  • Reduced problem behaviors for patients with dementia (less agitation, less verbal aggression, and more social behavior)
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Reduced tension
  • Reduced confusion
  • Improved self-esteem and self-acceptance
  • Increased socialization
  • Reduced boredom

Physical health benefits

  • Lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure when exposed to stress
  • Reduced serum epinephrine concentrations
  • Lower pain perception
  • Endorphins (oxytocin) released giving a calming effect
  • Reduced need for medication

man-petting-dog-in-hospital

What are the dangers for patients?

If patients are allergic to pets, animal-assisted therapy cannot be used. Guidelines from the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) indicate that only dogs should be used, not cats. Cats cannot be trained in the same way as dogs, with more likelihood of scratches and bites from cats.  Additionally, people are more likely to be allergic to cats than to dogs.

There has been a lot of research done on the benefit of having dogs in the hospital, but not much research on the spread of bacteria from having dogs in the hospital rooms. The SHEA developed new guidelines for how hospitals can approach having pets visiting with patients at the hospital. Dogs used for pet therapy purposes and their handlers need to undergo specific training and be evaluated prior to having hospital access and ideally should be certified by a pet training organization. The American Kennel Club (AKC) lists the organizations through which it accepts dogs to have received their certification and to be given the official title of AKC Therapy Dog.

A study done in a Canadian hospital tested dogs’ paws and fur prior to hospital entry and then again after visiting patients.  Of the 26 dogs studied, one picked up C Difficile on his paws during the visit and one had MRSA on his fur and on the handler’s hands following the visit.2 This highlights that although sanitizing pets is difficult, there is a definite need for thorough handwashing by anyone visiting patients prior to visiting and following the visit. When visiting with multiple patients, handwashing between visits is essential.

Hospitals have very distinct protocols in place to ensure that the transmission of infection is kept at a minimum. The animals have to be clean, vaccinated, trained, and have a good temperament before being allowed into the hospital in the first place.  In some cases, such as patients in isolation units or patients in the intensive care unit, pet therapy can only take place with extra measures in place, but in certain situations it is unsuitable.

lady-receiving-pet-therapy

Examples of successful animal-assisted therapy?

There are two types of patient-pet interactions: animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activity. Animal-assisted therapy is specifically directed toward patients with cancer, heart disease, or mental health concerns and needs to have a credentialed staff member involved in the process.  Animal-assisted activities have a wider scope and are typically used to provide comfort and enjoyment focusing on mental health benefits rather than trying to achieve specific physiological outcomes such as reduced blood pressure, etc. This latter form of activity is typically staffed by volunteer handlers.

Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York City is an example of a hospital where canines have successfully been introduced in the Caring Canines program.

 

memorial-sloane-kettering-caring-canines
President of Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center with Caring Canines employees

 

There are many programs of a similar type being introduced across the nation as the full benefits are increasingly being understood.  Dogs are not only being used in surgical and treatment settings but are being used for physical therapy and rehabilitation. Tasks such as brushing a dog can make for more interesting arm strengthening exercises for patients than just doing weight training.3  Dogs can also be used to encourage walking and other rehabilitative exercises.

More and more research is being done on the subject of pet therapy to ascertain the relative merits.  Here at Pet Barrier, we think the answer is simple.  If having a therapy or activity session with a dog can at the bare minimum brighten a patient’s day during difficult times, pet therapy is absolutely worth it. It has been clinically proven that animal-assisted therapy achieves far more than that, with benefits to patients’ mental and physical health being achieved across all age groups, from children through to seniors.  Animal-assisted therapy and activity should be available at all healthcare facilities across the nation. Is US healthcare going to the dogs? We welcome it!

We’d love to hear about your experiences with pet therapy – please share if you are able.

References

1.       Gole, Gawlinski, Steers, Kotlerman. Animal-Assisted Therapy in Patients Hospitalized With Heart Failure. Am J Crit Care. November 2007 vol. 16 no. 6 575-585

2. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/therapy-dogs-and-hospital-infections/?_r=0 Tara Parker-Pope May 11, 2009

3. Haggard, A. (1985). A patient’s best friend. American Journal of Nursing. 85(12), 1374-1376

 

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Chaos in the Cubicles, or a Calm Company: Does a pets-at-work Policy Work?

Of the many holidays scheduled throughout the year, one of the newest to hit the calendar is National Take Your Pet to Work Day.  In the US this is scheduled for June 23rd in 2017.  If your company is considering getting involved in this or implementing a full pets-at-work policy, now might be the prime time to start preparing to make it work for your business and its employees.

Increasingly businesses across the US are becoming more dog friendly.  According to the US pet food company, Purina, although around 72% of companies do not allow employees to bring their pets to work, it is anticipated that this could change in coming years as some employers are seeing specific advantages from introducing this additional employee benefit.  Admittedly there are many working situations where it simply is not practical to have a dog in tow, but in certain office environments, it can be a feasible option.

Why become dog friendly?

A happy, relaxed employee is more likely to be motivated at work and more likely to stay with a company for longer. High employee turnover is never a good sign in any organization and smart employers know that losing good people costs them both in time and money.  A recent article by Julie Kantorindicated that employee turnover costs a company conservatively between $15,000 and $25,000 every time an employee on a low salary leaves to go elsewhere and this amount ratchets up quickly with higher salaried employees.  It stands to reason that employers who show employees that they are valued are likely to get more respect and a better work ethic in return. Ideas for businesses to keep staff content and engaged are varied and can include the following:

  • flexible working hours
  • benefits such as good healthcare coverage
  • telecommuting opportunities
  • on-site child care
  • access to exercise facilities at lunch time or after work
  • a pets-at-work policy

Any benefits that offer employees a better work-life balance tend to be well received. Amazon, Etsy, Google, Bissell, Clif Bar and Petco are just a few of the US companies that are keen to get pets involved. They believe that millennials especially (currently aged between 18 and 34 years old) are influenced in a positive way if there are dogs in the office. One company (the BrewDog brewery in Columbus, Ohio) has even introduced a paid parental leave plan for employees who are welcoming a new puppy into their homes. Following the parental leave, they are then permitted to bring the pup to work.

It doesn’t work for all, but for some companies, allowing staff this flexibility of having a pet at work can reap rewards.

 

dog-under-a-desk

 

What are the advantages of having dogs at work?

Benefits of having dogs at work can include some of the following:

A happier and healthier workforce. Employees with pets at the desk are less likely to suffer from depression as petting a dog releases endorphins, reducing anxiety in the owner. Having a dog around also encourages more physical activity.  With a dog at your feet, you have to get active during the day, by taking regular comfort breaks and walking before work, at lunchtime, and after work. These benefits are really only true for the dog owners among the staff and not necessarily applicable to those without pets.

Dogs get to spend more time with their owners and vice versa.  When you add your commute time to your working day, chances are you are away from your home for a lot longer than you may realize.  Many pet owners who work full time will hire dog walkers to take the dog out for a walk during the day, but even with that special attention it is usually only for a short amount of time during the day, so your dog is likely to be lonely and miss your presence.  If your dog is with you, he may be less stressed and you can also relax knowing that he is in your care.

Increased social interaction.  Having a pet around can break the ice between co-workers and can also help to improve communication between staff at different levels. If there are other dogs in the office, your dog may get the opportunity to socialize more with other dogs.

 

Young woman petting dog at office desk

How can employers get this policy started?

If you are thinking about implementing a pets-at-work policy there are several things to consider from the outset.

  • It’s not always easy to get commercial real estate that allows pets to be on the premises, so be sure there isn’t a “no-pets” policy in your building.
  • If you are thinking about adopting a pets-at-work policy at your workplace, a good way to start could be with a “Bring Your Pet to Work Day.”  This allows you to see how having animals around affects your work environment without having to commit to a full pet-friendly policy from the outset.
  • Talk to other organizations that have a pets-at-work policy and find out from them what works, what hasn’t worked, and why.
  • If you decide to invite pets into your workplace, be prepared to make revisions to the policy as you experience different situations during a working week or month.

How can employees make it work?

man-with-dog-on-lap

If the company gives the idea of dogs at work the go-ahead, employees who want to bring dogs should think about the best approach to ensure that they and the company can capture all the positive benefits.

Will it be OK with all coworkers in the office?  Some people are allergic to dogs, whereas others are downright fearful, so it’s important to be respectful of all employees needs.

What to do when dogs don’t get along. Chances are there will be plenty of other dogs at the office too.  If there are, introduce them slowly.  Not all will get on with one another, so be prepared for that and have a plan on what to do should that be the case.

Consider dog temperaments and how they differ with breed and training. Some dogs are too stressed in new settings to cope with going into a work environment, whereas others are fairly laid back and could fit in anywhere.  Think realistically and objectively about where your dog sits on this scale in terms of temperament and level of training.

Think about grooming. In the same way that you take a shower and dress appropriately for work, you should take a similar approach with your dog.  Make sure he is groomed as well as he can be – a muddy pooch may not be a good fit in a well-presented office environment.

Health and safety for dogs.  Ensure that the office environment is as hazard-free as possible. Make sure that any choking hazards are out of the way of the pets, and there is no chance of them chewing on cables, plants or anything else that could be dangerous. Ensure all pet vaccinations are up to date.  This is vital, to ensure that pets stay healthy when coming into contact with other dogs. Do not take a sick dog to work. You don’t know how that is going to play out, and this can be made worse when introducing him into a more stressful environment.

Don’t let him wander.  Although your dog wouldn’t be on a leash at home, this is not the same kind of environment.  You need to know where your dog is at every point during the day and the best way of doing that is keeping him tethered.

Pay attention to physical needs. Your dog will require regular attention during your time at work.  Make sure you have dishes for water and food with you and some (preferably non-squeaky) toys for distraction.  Take your dog for frequent excursions outside, so that he can relieve himself and so he doesn’t get overly restless being cooped up in an office environment all day.  Again, this is a time to consider whether your dog’s breed can tolerate being inside an office for a long period of time.

Don’t leave your dog unattended for large periods of time.  This can be difficult if you are likely to be attending lengthy meetings, so take that into consideration before bringing your dog to work.

 

Dog in glasses sitting in an office chair, on with box folder with documents

Do you think having your pet at work would make you more productive?  If you work somewhere that already welcomes pets in the workplace, we’d love to hear about your experiences.

Reference

  1. Kantor J. Want to Keep Your Millenials – Mentor Them.  Huff Post. December 18, 2016

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To pet or not to pet: That is the Question

 

When asked to consider animals who assist people, most of us immediately think of dogs that aid blind or partially sighted individuals. This is thanks to organizations such as Guide Dogs of America and The Seeing Eye who work hard to ensure that those with vision challenges receive assistance. Over the last couple of decades, different types of animals are increasingly used to help people dealing with a broader range of physical and behavioral conditions.  The benefits of using these animals are numerous, with the result that they are being employed more widely and with greater frequency. Today, chances are that you are more likely to meet service animals in your daily routine than in the past. As they are actually “at work” and are not pets, what are the best approaches to take when encountering these animals?

Categories of assistance animals

Assistance animals fall into differing categories depending on the type of assistance required.

Service animals

Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks relating to the handler’s needs. Not just for the visually impaired, hearing dogs for the deaf, and mobility dogs have become available allowing people with differing needs to be able to go about daily tasks with a greater level of autonomy and liberty than in previous generations.  People dealing with issues such as seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, anxiety, and diabetes also benefit from using service dogs.

Working dogs

Police or military dogs are in the working dog category. Sadly, with terror threats being a more common occurrence over the last 15 years, we tend to see more of these dogs on duty.  This is particularly true at airports where they are now an intrinsic part of the security process, rather than just used to detect contraband at customs.

airport-security-dog

Therapy animals

In recent years there has been a rise in the number of therapy dogs used in various settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and even in courtrooms. These dogs differ from service dogs in that they are used to provide affection and comfort to people, helping to reduce anxiety, stress and sometimes acting as an intermediary between the care recipient and professional staff.

dog-with-person-in-hospital

Emotional support animals

Typically used by people with specific behavioral health conditions requiring extra support and comfort, these animals may accompany an owner or may be employed by a business to help improve customer experience.

Only dogs allowed?

According to an article in the Huffington Post,¹  the cost of a service dog in 2016 was around $20,000. At that time, one Web site that places 75-100 service dogs a year, had a wait list of 1,600 people. This equates to a potential wait time of 16-22 years, which for people requiring assistance is simply too long.

Fortunately, given the level of need, dogs are not the only animals being used in this capacity. Other animals are also suitable to assist with different medical conditions. Ferrets alert owners of seizures. Boa constrictors (yes, you read it correctly!) are used for seizure alerts, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder. Parrots have a calming influence on those with bipolar disorder. Miniature horses help the visually impaired. The Guide Horse Foundation believes that miniature horses are a great option for people who love horses, for those allergic to dogs, and for people wanting longevity from their service animal.

CUDDLES 11

Capuchin monkeys are great for people with dexterity issues who struggle to pick up or hold items. Pigs can help visually or physically impaired individuals or can act as therapy animals. For example, San Francisco airport employs Lilou a Juliana breed pig to comfort anxious travelers in the terminal.

Dos and Don’ts of interacting with working animals

Dos

Do interact with the owner or handler

Interact with the owner but not with the animal.  The owner and animal are a team and the owner’s life could depend on his team member staying focused on the job.  It is better (and not considered rude) to ignore the service animal altogether. Let the owner know if his dog approaches you, and allow him to correct the situation. Therapy and emotional support animals are slightly different.  For example, if the animal is employed by an airport to help calm passengers, then do ask the handler if it is OK to interact with the animal.

Do be respectful

Be respectful of the owner. Just as a police officer will not be prepared to discuss details of why she is on duty with her dog, other service dog owners will not want to discuss their personal details with a stranger.  If you cannot figure out why the owner needs a service animal, don’t ask them. Equally, if your offers of help are refused, don’t be offended, just accept that this can interfere with the work of the service dog and can confuse commands previously given by the owner.

Do keep your own dog on a tight leash

Keep your own dog away from the service dog completely as other pets can be distracting for the working animal.

Do allow service animals into your business

If you are a business owner in an establishment that normally does not allow pets, make sure you do allow service dogs and their owners to enter. This is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law applies to any service animal that gives assistance when there is a disability.

Do educate children about service animals

Explain to children that service animals and working animals are not like regular household pets and that they have a special job to do to help the owner.  Keep children at a distance from a service dog and do not allow them to pet the dog.

Don’ts

Don’t pet the animal

You may be the biggest dog lover in the nation, but don’t be tempted to pet a service dog unless you have the owner’s permission. Petting the dog distracts him and may prevent him from following out a complete command.  An example of this is with dogs trained to detect seizures, who need to give a 10-minute warning so that the owner can get to a safe place or get help.  If you distract the dog by petting him, he may not be able to warn the owner in time, which could be catastrophic.

dont-pet-me-im-working

Don’t give treats

You may love giving treats to dogs, but please don’t give treats to dogs that are on duty. Not only can it distract the dog, making for a dangerous situation, but many service dogs are on specific diets and should not be given anything that does not meet the diet criteria.

Don’t make assumptions

  • Don’t assume that if a service dog is asleep he is off duty. If he is out with his owner, he is working.
  • Don’t assume that these dogs have a worse life than other dogs.  They have fantastic bonds with their owners and when off duty they get to relax like any other dog.
  • Don’t assume that the owner has a certificate proving the dog is a service dog.  Not all states require such certification and, in the states that do, owners are not always required to carry the paperwork.
  • Don’t assume that only dogs and only certain breeds of dog can be service animals. Many breeds of dog and different types of animal are trained to work.
  • Don’t assume that service dogs are only for adults.  Many children with many different needs benefit from service dogs.  Interestingly, one county in Colorado now uses dogs in the courtroom to help comfort children when giving testimony.

autism-service-dog

Don’t fake it

Don’t pretend to have your own service dog.  You may be tempted to put a special coat on your pet and take him to places where pets aren’t ordinarily permitted, but please don’t. Not only does it confuse the distinction between pets and service animals, it is actually a federal crime.  Allow people with genuine needs to be helped by genuine service dogs.

The best approach

For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of an individual living with physical or mental conditions, which in some cases are life threatening.  If an animal gave you the opportunity to live the fullest, most independent life possible, how would you react to someone interfering with and compromising the hard work of that service animal?

The following YouTube clip shows Windsor, a remarkable service dog, assisting his handler in running errands.

To pet or not to pet: that is the question. The answer?  If you are not the individual receiving therapy or service, do not pet. Encountering a working service animal is perhaps one of the most appropriate situations in life to adopt a don’t-touch approach. Following this guideline and the others mentioned above, we can allow these incredible animals to carry out their invaluable work. You can’t help but be in awe of them – I know I am.

Reference

  1. Lillibridge L. What’s the Harm in Faking a Service Dog? Huffington Post. August 13, 2016