Research has proven that companion animals can relieve stress, anxiety and loneliness, particularly among people in need of additional emotional support, like those in a hospital setting.
That’s why St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center has introduced a pet therapy program, bringing in Pet Partners of Syracuse to visit patients, family members and staff to help alleviate some of the stresses of hospital life.
“Basically, we’re following relationship-based care that we promote,” said Rachelle Lando, coordinator of St. Joe’s Office of Patient Experience, which was created last May to integrate holistic and complementary models of care into patient treatment at the hospital. “It’s really ingrained at St. Joe’s — care of self, care of colleagues and care of patients and families. What we’re finding with the pet therapy and what we’ve found through all of these studies that have been done is that they’re thinking about their illness less. Their pain perception is less. It helps with anxiety. Their blood pressure goes down. There are many different facets. Even with the staff, the therapy pet groups are like rock stars. Everyone is so excited to see them. People just light up.”
According to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., one of the most renowned medical facilities in the country, pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to benefit not only patients, but their families, as well; it’s also been used in non-medical settings, such as universities and community programs, to help relieve stress and anxiety.
There are some risks associated with pet therapy, particularly in medical settings, in terms of safety and sanitation. There are strict protocols hospitals must follow to ensure that the animals are clean, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior. However, it’s important to note the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never received a report of infection from animal-assisted therapy.
At St. Joe’s, Lando and her staff had to jump through a lot of hoops to bring the program to its current state of being.
“It was quite a process to get where we are,” Lando said.
First, the Office of Patient Experience had to figure out how to establish the pet therapy program. They held countless meetings with the hospital’s infection control team and medical leadership to set parameters while speaking to other hospitals with similar programs to determine how to implement it in Syracuse. Once those parameters had been set and the guidelines for the program had been written, Lando’s office had to determine where the program could take place and which patients could be eligible.
“Obviously, we can’t bring them to patients that are afraid of dogs or that are allergic,” Lando said. “We have to take that into account, or if they have a roommate with the same symptoms. We can move them to another room. We also have to take into account open wounds or patients who are immune-compromised. It’s common sense things you would think.”
Once the program kicked off earlier this year, Pet Partners of Syracuse began coming to the hospital in four separate animal/handler teams in two-hour blocks. At first, they would stick to the public areas — the lobby and the waiting areas.
“They would go and be greeters in the lobby, then in the waiting rooms. And there was such a great reception,” Lando said. “We had them in the surgical waiting rooms. The families there would be so nervous waiting for news of their loved ones, and the therapy teams would take their minds off that. They’d tell stories about their own pets at home. It would relieve their anxiety about that.”
The reception was so good that Lando was able to get approval to bring the teams into the patients’ rooms. If a patient is eligible, he or she fills out the appropriate referral and consent forms. He or she can then get on the list to be visited by a dog and handler team from Pet Partners.
“They just light up,” Lando said. “It makes such a big difference in the healing process.”
Lando said the program, along with other complementary therapies, wouldn’t be possible without the support of the administration at the hospital.
“We’re really supported by our leadership to bring about other holistic modalities to balance out the medical model,” she said. “It’s been a really positive experience with the staff, the patients, the families and the administration.”
In addition to the pet therapy program, St. Joe’s is looking to bring holistic and complementary therapies to the hospital. Lando said the office is researching ways to expand its influence to help patients, families and St. Joe’s staff.
“We’re really in the beginning stages right now,” she said. “When the office was formed last May, we started researching other holistic modalities to implement. We want to expand our therapeutic music program. We’re researching to see other ways to respond and other programs we can implement here. We’re really getting to the heart of healing.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.