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Must Love Dogs: Animal Therapy in Medicine

ATOYOMOne day, I was walking across the medical center campus when I suddenly burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it when I saw a white furry dog with a blue bandana wrapped around his neck, from which hung a badge with his name and photo. I was too far away to see his name, but I imagined it to be something like “Buddy.”

I wasn’t aware that the medical center used animal therapy, through a program appropriately called TAILS. I had heard about bringing dogs to the hospital to comfort patients, but I had never seen it in action.

Animal therapy is not new. Dogs have been used in hospitals for centuries, since they were first used in England. Now, scientific research backs up the use of animal therapy.

Believe it or not, studies have shown that animal therapy lowers stress, enhances mood and lowers blood pressure. No research has to prove that dogs make most people happy.

Hospitalized children enjoy having dogs visit them in the hospital. The kids form a bond with the dogs and attention is diverted away from the fears of being in the hospital.

Dogs can improve symptoms in the depressed and promote social interaction in those with dementia. People living in nursing homes can find companionship with a dog, which some say gives them an extra reason to live because they don’t want to abandon their friend. Furthermore, a dog reminds the patient of the comforts of home, which makes their hospital stay more bearable.

There are, however, downsides to letting man’s best friend roam around the hospital. Larger dogs may get in the way, especially if an emergency occurs. Some people have had negative experiences with dogs and are fearful to be around them. Others have a low opinion of dogs and believe that they do not have a place in the hospital.

Don’t forget to consider if someone has a fur allergy, because they must be kept at a safe distance. Dogs can also carry organisms that may complicate a patient’s illness, particularly in the immunocompromised. A previous study demonstrated that therapy dogs can acquire dangerous hospital organisms, such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

“Compared to human visitors, animals typically visit a larger number of patients and staff members and walk bare-pawed on hospital corridors, possibly making them more likely to pick up germs. However, countless numbers of people who visit hospitals regularly shake hands, hug and kiss, and sit on hospital beds in patients’ rooms.”

The bottom line in avoiding the transmission of organisms is for patients, staff, students and visitors to frequently wash their hands.

Whatever the real value of animal therapy, I do know one thing: the patient must love dogs!

Valentina Bonev Valentina Bonev (21 Posts)

Columnist Emeritus and in-Training Staff Member

Loma Linda University Medical Center

A Taste Of Your Own Medicine is a column that gives you a taste of medicine. It focuses on important and interesting topics relating to medicine and being a medical student.

Valentina is a general surgery resident at Loma Linda University Medical Center. She graduated from University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.