Hospitalized Kids Benefit from Visits with Family Pets

Family Pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, FL, launched the Healing Paws family pet visitation program in May. In an 8-foot by 20-foot hallway, long-term pediatric patients reunite with the family pets they miss so much during lengthy hospital stays.
  • Implementing a family pet visitation program in a hospital setting is no small undertaking. Managing patient visits by family pets is much different than overseeing a trained therapy dog visitation program. There are many details to work out, not to mention significant legal and medical restrictions.
  • For those institutions willing and able to assume the risk, the benefits of family pet visitations make the effort worthwhile. The staff at Wolfson Children’s knew right away, as they watched their first reunion between a 17 year-old patient and her grandmother’s dog, that they had made the right decision.

By Dr. Becker

Methodist Hospital in Texas, the Christiana Care Health System in Delaware, the University of Iowa College of Medicine, and now Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida all have something very special in common.

These hospitals allow patients to have visits from the family pet.

Healing Paws for Long-Term Pediatric Patients

The program at Wolfson Children’s is called Healing Paws and it’s one of a growing number of similar efforts across the country. The program kicked off in May, and its goal is to give long-term pediatric patients the opportunity to spend time with their pets without leaving the hospital.

Michael Aubin, president of Wolfson, actually got the idea from his wife, who casually mentioned to him that if she was ever laid up in the hospital, she would want to have visits from their dog, Ripley. Soon after, Aubin realized there was a perfect location for pet visits at Wolfson. A fire exit hallway near the main entrance to the facility was far enough away from patient areas to prevent introducing germs into the hospital and to keep the noise contained, but it was still close enough to quickly move patients back to treatment areas in case of an emergency.

This was the beginning of Wolfson’s pet program.

Why Family Pet Visitation Programs Are So Rare

Family pet visitation programs in hospitals are not easy to implement. One of the reasons they are so rare is due to stringent medical and legal restrictions.

As any dog owner can attest, canine companions bring germs and noise wherever they go. Also, it’s important for hospitals to monitor the medical histories of visiting dogs – a time-consuming headache they have neither the time nor resources to manage.

When trained therapy dogs visit hospital patients, the medical facility dictates everything from which vaccines the animals have received, to the shampoo on their fur.

In order to be part of Healing Paws, a dog must be at least 12 weeks old, house trained, and vaccinated. Dogs must also have a health certificate from a veterinarian vouching for their good health.

All dog toys must be provided by the hospital.

The prospect of pets snuggling with patients in hospital beds is probably far-fetched given the risk of infection, issues of noise, and the potential to disturb other patients. But Eric Sandler, a Jacksonville pediatric oncologist and hematologist believes family dog visitation programs in hospitals should be encouraged under controlled circumstances.

Why These Programs Are So Important

The staff at Wolfson Children’s was grateful to have conquered the challenges of starting the visitation program as they witnessed the first patient-pet reunion. A 17 year-old patient got a visit from her grandmother’s dog and was able to hold and pet the pup in the hospital’s 8 by 20 foot fire exit hallway. "The color came back in her face. It was a beautiful moment," said Vikki Mioduszewski of Wolfson’s.

According to USA Today:

"Interacting with trained therapy dogs reduces anxiety before medical procedures, distracts patients from their medical condition, and elevates mood by boosting the body's happy hormone, oxytocin, studies show."

It seems patient stress levels are reduced whether they interact with the family pet or a therapy dog. According to Emily Patterson, an animal welfare scientist with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), unfamiliar dogs bring a sense of excitement and energy, while the family dog has a calming, reassuring effect.

"When a trained therapy dog visits, it's like getting a strange person to perform music. It adds excitement to your day. When your dear pet visits, it's like a friend is visiting you. It reconnects you with your community. You feel trusted and reassured," Patterson said.

Dr. Sandler believes allowing sick children to connect with a pet to whom they are closely bonded is therapeutic.

"Kids want this," says Sandler. "Although 80% of our kids are cured of cancer; it's that last 20% that go through a lot. If the kid wants to, let them get down and play. That's as therapeutic as many of the other things we do."

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