Therapy dogs offer comfort to young hospital patients


Dear Doctors: My 8-year-old nephew is in the hospital with kidney problems. He wants to see the therapy dog who visits the kids on his floor, but my sister says no. How do I reassure her that it’s safe? I worry about interfering, but I’ve read that therapy dogs can help kids in the hospital feel better.

Dear Reader: Yes, there’s abundant evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that interacting with a dog or other type of therapy animal can be beneficial to hospital patients. Studies have found that when someone makes physical contact with a therapy animal, whether patting, stroking or hugging, it prompts their body to release certain hormones and chemical messengers. These include serotonin, oxytocin and prolactin, which play a role in feeling calm, relaxed and happy.

Interacting with a dog can help lower the levels of stress and anxiety that are common in a hospital setting, and which have been shown to interfere with good health and healing. Patients report that spending time with a therapy dog helps to ease fear, reduce loneliness, promote relaxation and lessen physical pain.

In one study, rehab patients with regular visits from therapy dogs began sitting and standing for longer periods of time in order to interact with the animals. Therapy dogs are even being introduced into intensive care unit settings, where they help patients struggling with a profoundly alien environment. And while your question refers to children, therapy animals help patients of all ages, as well as hospital staff, to deal with a challenging environment.

In order for therapy-animal programs to be as safe as possible, hospitals implement strict guidelines and procedures. Dogs who participate in animal-assisted therapy programs are carefully screened for temperament and behavior. Their handlers are often required to go through a special training program as well. Additional guidelines address issues such as vaccinations, vet certifications and appropriate grooming. Visits with a therapy animal only take place with the handler present, and they are coordinated with a patient’s medical team.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

Learning the specific details of your own hospital’s guidelines and procedures regarding the therapy dogs that your nephew wants to meet may help your sister feel more comfortable with the idea of a visit. If it’s possible, and if your sister is willing, she could meet the dog and its handler ahead of time. This would allow her to ask questions and interact with the dog. That way, she can see firsthand how the dog behaves.

However, you should be prepared for the fact that you may not be able to change your sister’s mind. Being in the hospital is often stressful, and even scary, no matter someone’s age. And in this case, the experience is affecting both a sick child and their worried parent. It’s easy to understand how, in her desire to protect her son, your sister might take a stand on one of the few parts of his hospital stay that she can control. Remember to be gentle when you bring up the topic, and be ready to accept her decision.

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