Pet therapy is a type of therapy that involves bringing animals into the hospital to interact with patients. Pets help to normalize the hospital environment and make hospitalization less stressful and frightening for patients and their families.
The benefits of pet therapy are numerous and well-documented in the scientific literature. Researchers have evaluated the effectiveness of pet therapy in a number of settings and have found a wide range of advantages.
Animals have long served as an important source of social contact and bonding for humans (Francis, 1991; Friedmann and Heesook, 2009). Pet companionship has been associated with improved overall mental, social, and physiological health status (Friedmann and Heesook, 2009). Research has shown that companion animals serve as an aid to relaxation, as indicated by decreased blood pressure and increased peripheral skin temperature (Baun, et al., 1991).
More recently, the benefits of pet therapy in hospitalized pediatric patients have been explored. In a study of pediatric cardiology patients, Wu et al. assessed the impact of Pets at Work (PAWS), a pet visitation program designed for therapeutic interaction between trained dogs and pediatric patients, parents, and unit staff (Wu, et al., 2002). The study found that pet visits provided stress relief, normalization of hospital milieu, generation of positive rapport and feelings, and improved satisfaction and morale for patients and parents. The pet visits had both relaxing and stimulatory effects on patients–such as calming a child before a procedure or waking a child after surgery–and these observed effects corresponded with appropriate changes in heart rate and respiratory rate.
A similar study by Kaminski et al. explored the physical and emotional impact of a pet therapy program called Pet Pals on pediatric patients (Kaminski, et al., 2002). Pet Pals, the canine visitation program at the University of Wisconsin’s Children Hospital, was established with the goal of reducing hospitalized children’s anxiety and distress. In this study, Kaminski et al. compared this pet therapy program to child-life therapy, a commonly used program in pediatric hospitals. They found that, compared to those in the child-life group, children participating in Pet Pals experienced more anticipatory excitement and displayed more positive effect. Parents’ ratings of the child’s mood were also more substantially improved in the pet therapy group.
Gagnon et al. assessed the implementation of another pet therapy program, A Magical Dream, for pediatric oncology patients (Gagnon, et al., 2004). They found that the program was effective in improving overall mood and well-being. Moreover, patients and parents experienced acute reduction in psychological distress. Pet therapy also facilitated patients’ adaptation to the therapeutic process.
Sobo et al. explored the effectiveness of canine visitation therapy (CVT) in pediatric pain management (Sobo, et al., 2006). They found that a one-time CVT intervention significantly reduced pediatric patients’ perceived pain after surgery, suggesting that the effectiveness of pet therapy may be partially cognitive. Pets provide a distraction from pain, as well as a comforting reminder of home. Furthermore, patients reported pets as a source of pleasure, happiness, fun, and entertainment. The physical contact provided by the pets further contributed to the reduction in perceived pain.
Research that has investigated pet therapy in hospitalized adults has produced similar findings regarding its many benefits. For example, Coakley et al. found that adult patients attained significant improvement in perceived energy level and significant reduction in pain, respiratory rate, and negative mood state with pet therapy compared to baseline (Coakley and Mahoney, 2009). Specifically, these patients showed improvements on several mood state subscales, including tension/anxiety and fatigue/inertia. Overall, pet therapy intervention improved patients’ moods.
Pet therapy can range from casual visitations to formalized intervention programs. There are different types of pet interactions, based on the patient’s desires and needs (Sobo, et al., 2006):
1. Passive interaction – pet sits or sleeps with the patient.
2. Low interaction – pet performs occasional tricks.
3. Active interaction – patient and pet engage in lively play or go for a walk.
The interaction type can be altered on any given day. In addition, the frequency and duration of visits or sessions can vary widely for different patients and their families.
Conclusion: Pet therapy provides substantial pediatric benefit. It is also readily adaptable to the various needs of these patients.
Contributing Authors: Marley E Burns and Oren J Mechanic
Last Revised January 13, 2012.
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