Authors: Joshua Cohan
(HOUSTON) -- Many hospitals around the country have pet therapy programs, in which a trained owner-volunteer will bring a dog to the hospital for patients to enjoy. These programs have been said to help patients with their mood, pain, and comfort levels.
But a growing number of hospitals have taken their pet therapy programs even farther, allowing patients to have visits from their own pets.
"When there is a patient in the hospital that will be here for a significant amount of time, we think it is important for them to have their entire family here," said Jamie Snow, Assistant Director of Child Life and Social Work at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. "And some people consider their pets family members."
The program started at Texas Children's four years ago, when administrators were approached by an organization called PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) Houston, a non-profit organization that helps to sustain the relationships between pet owners and their pets during a prolonged hospitalization.
Here's how it works: a social worker or child life specialist, hearing that a patient has a pet at home, speaks to doctors who can approve a visit. Then PAWS is contacted. They ensure that the pet is vaccinated and has a bath before the visit. A PAWS volunteer will meet the pet and family members at the entrance of the hospital where they perform a "behavior check" to make sure the pet's temperament is good for a hospital environment. They then take the pet to the patient's room.
"We have never had any bad events from an animal visit," said Tricia Lewis, a nursing director at the Methodist Hospital System in Houston, Texas, who worked with PAWS to pioneer the personal pet visitation policy at her hospital over a decade ago. "No bites, no infections."
Dr. Loreen Herwaldt, a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Colleges of Medicine and Public Health, and Jean Pottinger, an infection prevention expert for University of Iowa Healthcare, helped bring the personal pet policy to their hospitals. Pottinger, too, said there have never been any infections that were attributable to animals at her hospital. And she said there has been no documentation of any bad outcomes from pet visits in her hospital.
Herwaldt said there is likely good reason for the lack of infections from the animals. "[The patients] were living in very close contact with these animals before they came in and have been exposed to the organisms the animal is carrying," she said. "They will be going back to that environment as well. We make sure [the patients] wash their hands before and after the visit."
Hospitals take other precautions to reduce any risk of infection. Barriers are placed between animals and bed sheets, and the sheets are changed after the animal leaves.
The experience has been positive for patients, said Donna Dishman, co-founder and executive director of PAWS Houston. She said the first personal pet visit was remarkable. The patient was an 83-year-old woman in intensive care, diagnosed with breast cancer.
"[She] was not eating, not responding, and had given up," Dishman said. "When we put her dog on her bed, she started talking, and started eating."
"Often there are people who are not doing well, and don't respond to staff and people but for some reason make an effort to speak when animals come around," said Dr. Lisa Portnoy, a veterinarian and animal program director for the NIH Clinical Center.
Such programs may become even more common as hospitals strive to find special ways to meet the needs of patients and their families.
"I think that when we think about a patient-centered environment, we have to think about what is meaningful to health and well-being to the patient," said Linda Laskowski Jones, Christiana Care Health System's Vice President of Emergency and Trauma Services in Delaware, where a personal pet visitation policy is also in place. "The framework has to include animals. That is important to health and recovery and comfort."
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio