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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Why Mom was Right About Spring Cleaning: Part 3, Lifestyle

 

Part 3: Your lifestyle

 

When you are a busy adult, whether because of work commitments, child care, caring for senior family members, pet care,  or perhaps all of the aforementioned, it is often easy to make the mistake of putting yourself last.  Admittedly in this 3-part series, I am posting this last, which shows I’m as guilty of thinking along these lines as anybody.  Whenever I’ve put my needs first, I’ve always felt a little bit guilty, but recent events at my veterinarian’s office made me rethink what I had previously thought of as selfish actions on my part.

motherjuggling

I was attending an appointment with my dog when another dog’s owner experienced a heart attack in the waiting room. Fortunately, the outcome of a long and convoluted story was that the dog’s owner recovered well and the dog received care during the recuperation period.  It left me with the realization that in order to ensure someone else’s welfare, we need to ensure our own welfare. Ultimately, if we don’t take proper care of ourselves, we become unable to care for others. Isn’t it, therefore, a wise investment to make time for yourself this spring by reviewing your lifestyle and maybe giving it an overhaul if it is falling short?

 

 

Rethink your workout habits

You work out to stay fit and healthy, but if your routine hasn’t really changed in many years, maybe it could do with a refresh to keep you interested and challenged.  If you enjoy working out with your dog, activities like canine parcours or doga could be of interest to you.  If you love walking with your dog, but are thinking about progressing to running, maybe alternating jogging with walking with your pup may be a good way to ease both of you into the sport.

yoga

Improve your diet

We’re not talking about dangerous diets or detox programs, but simply evaluating what you eat and seeing how you can boost your nutritional intake can be beneficial.  An easy way to start is with a food diary, in which you write down what and how much you have eaten for every meal for a couple of weeks (or longer if you prefer).  You will probably be surprised by the results.  If you find your diet is particularly low in vegetables, that is an easy fix.  Additionally, if you notice that there is a lot of repetition in your meals, you can add more variety to give a broader range of nutrients and more interest for your palate. In the last couple years particularly, many  TV chefs, TV doctors, and celebrity fitness trainers have been focusing on increasing nutritional value in meals to try to help people reduce weight, prevent disease, and ultimately add years to their lives. Their suggested recipes are often simple to fix, absolutely delicious, and many are available free online – it’s worth googling.

superfood-salad

Take more time for yourself

No matter what hobbies you have and how you prefer to take time for yourself, make certain that you build some of this time into your week. Make a list of the things that you really want to do for yourself and the things that help you relax. Then look at what you actually do on a daily basis and determine what tasks can be eliminated or even outsourced.  If you spend all your spare time catching up on household duties, maybe some of those tasks can be shared with a spouse, leaving you some time to attend a language lesson, catch up on a good book, or whatever you want to do that’s just for you.

Nurture your friendships

Friends getting together

Friendships are vital, whether we have busy lives or not. Try to stay in touch with friends on a weekly basis, even if just by phone, and try to get together as often as possible. Friendships help us to feel connected, boost happiness levels, reduce stress, and may even help in preventing early onset dementia.

best-friends

 

Your Mom was right,  spring cleaning is an important addition to every person’s calendar, but not just for keeping your house spiffy. Take time for yourself, it’s not selfish, it’s essential!

 

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