At my hospital we offer Animal Assisted Therapy animal visits a couple of days a week, patients and their families are asked when they are admitted if they like animals and if they are interested in getting a visit. The handlers of the therapy animals (which are all certified and up to date on all vaccinations), then will go to various floors where patients have requested a visit, make sure it is still acceptable with their current state of health and with various procedures, etc. and then will pop in for a 15-30 minute visit, depending on what is allowed by the patient and their Healthcare Practitioners (HCPs). There are differences of opinion about Therapy Animals in the hospital, however, and some feel that these visits can be detrimental to patients health.
What are the two sides to the debate?
Obviously I’m biased on this one, I love animals, and have two therapy dogs of my own, and there is another side to the story; I’d like to pretend there isn’t one, but I will give you both sides of the debate so you can make your own judgement!
The overall goal of Animal Assisted therapy is to improve the cognitive, social, and emotional functioning of any given patient. It was first used in the 18th Century with patients that had mental/psychiatric disorders, and though it was based on no real science at that time, it was found that the patients were better able to socialize with one another when caring for and being with animals. Sigmund Freud found that children and adolescents were much more comfortable and open in therapy when animals were present, they helped to decrease stress. In modern-day life, the therapy is based on a biophyllia hypothesis, which basically states that because humans depended upon animals for survival long ago, when we see an animal at rest, is signals to humans that they can be calm and restful as well. Animal assisted therapy is currently brought to prisons, hospitals, nursing homes/extended care facilities, and with home therapy; patients who use animal assisted therapy see great results and report feeling better, they have seen elderly with significant dementia who can be aggressive or mean, change their behavior when there is an animal around. Children with autism that had extreme inability to interact with humans, are able to show emotion and interact with animals. There was a study performed in 1998 that found patients with various mental disorders, including anxiety, had observed and reported decreased in anxiety after animal assisted therapies. Another study on 2007 looked at patients with heart failure and found that after three months with animal therapy, their blood pressure and heart rates were decreased at rest, showing less strains of stress on the heart, and they had and improved quality of life. There have been numerous other studies published, but these are a couple with tangible results.
There are numerous HCPs that either don’t believe in the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy or are just really against it. One reason that some HCPs don’t buy into it is that the research studies that have been published aren’t the strongest scientifically speaking, they aren’t studying the neuron effects of patients as they get therapy with a dog, for example, instead they report based upon the patients actions and reported feelings after therapies. Mostly, just like anything else, poking holes in the research is the way to show negativity or “prove” it doesn’t work. The biophyllia hypothesis (mentioned above) is also highly questioned as a theory in general, as the basis for it is pretty weak. One reason why one, very outspoken, Medical Doctor, is very anti Animal Assisted Therapy is because he thinks of the animals as vectors to transmit disease and bacteria; not that the animals themselves are dirty, but that so many people pet the animals without washing their hands, and even if I do clean my hands, I could (theoretically) obtain others bacteria from my hands. There are very few bacteria/viruses that dogs and humans can share in common, so the concern is strictly with bacteria that might travel from patient to patient. Of course, there is also the risk that some patients have low immune systems from their disease process or are allergic.
Just to reiterate: we do not bring therapy dogs to rooms of people who do not request them (due to allergies, they don’t like dogs, etc.) OR if it is medically inappropriate. The dogs are washed and clean when coming into the place of therapy, and every place is different, but it is normally requested that people either wash their hands or use an alcohol based antibacterial cleaner on their hands before touching the therapy animals. I never really thought about the fact that my cute little pooches could be vectors for bacteria BUT I don’t normally like tons of random people touching them, so when they are used for therapy, I do keep an alcohol based cleaner on me to strongly encourage use before petting my dogs! And just from personal experience, patients and the hospital staff light up when they get visited by the therapy animals, and the atmosphere that can be highly charged with stress, feels lighter, happier, and everyone has a smile on their face. I think that says it all!
So, what do you think? Would you be willing to allow it for you or your family member? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
Yours in Good Health