69). Petting a dog lowered blood pressure and respiratory rate -- even if the dog was somebody else's. Pet owners that have heart surgery recover faster and stand a better chance of full recovery. Touching a warm furry animal gives them relief.
Moreover, pet ownership is a predictor of survival after hospitalization for any serious illness (Gunter & Furnham, 1999).
Demello (1999) found that the "mere presence of an animal" could lower blood pressure and that the effect persisted even after the animal was gone. Visual contact with an animal, although it helped, was not as good as touching. Heart rates decreased significantly in a three-minute period of physical contact with the animal (Demello, 1999).
A story in Time magazine (2001) tells how a brain-injured man needed help to get back his sense of balance. Ginger, an Australian shepherd, liked to fetch, so physical therapy for this man was to reach down, pet the dog with his weak arm, and then throw a ball for her to bring back. He said, "I can't turn my neck, and my eyesight isn't good. The dog gives me courage" (cited in Time, 2001, p. 53). The benefits are both physical and spiritual. The primary force that helps a patient to get well is motivation, and animals in critical care units remind patients there is a life to live away from the hospital and a reason to get well (Cenner, 2001).
Dogs who do therapy must be trained. Most dogs that practice in hospitals are certified by Therapy Dogs International in New Jersey or by the Delta Society. Animals are insured for liability by these organizations (Cenner, 2001). The Delta Society screens dogs for personality and obedience. Certification reassures personnel that the dog will behave. Leaser (2005) points out, "While many dogs have a sweet nature and calm disposition, and offer love and companionship at home, not all dogs are appropriate or have the proper temperament suitable for a therapy dog..." (p. 978). Dogs also have to know hospital protocols. They must remain calm in the face of careening wheelchairs, screaming and weeping strangers, hospital emergencies, and scary equipment. Animals with aggressive behavior are screened out.
A dog must be a year old to get a license. It must be in good health, accept strangers, be well-groomed and attractive; be able to walk through crowded, noisy areas; obey voice commands; react calmly to other dogs, and remain calm no matter what. Parshall (2003) states, "A license represents a minimum standard that is observable to a hiring agency and clients and that provides liability insurance for the therapy animal" (p. 54).
The Risks of AAT
In the unlikely event of something negative happening and a law suit, the hospital or therapist is covered by insurance. In the past animals were banned from hospitals mainly because those who made the rules believed it wasn't safe. They worried about infection and the possibility that an animal could injure a patient by biting the person or knocking the person over. However, researchers have found the danger is very low for an animal that is certified, and the benefits outweigh the risks (Brodie, Biley & Shewring, 2001). Patients who have weak immune systems (AIDS, for example) may be prone to infections from bacteria that animals carry, but the use of a certified dog minimizes all these risks because the dog has been examined and is healthy. Oddly enough, the risk to the dog may be greater. Barlow, for instance, a therapy dog that lived at a hospice facility became "overly fatigued and overfed" and had to be removed from the facility for the sake of his health. Lucky, a dog that lived at a nursing home, died prematurely from congestive heart failure brought on by weighing 113 pounds -- the residents continually overfed him.
There really isn't any danger. Parshall (2003), who conducted a thorough review of the literature on animal assisted therapy, found no incidents of aggressive behavior in therapy dogs. The hazards are minimal and can be minimized even further by "careful selection of animals, thorough planning and allocation of responsibility, rigorous health care of the animal, and informed practices by all involved" (Brodie, et al., 2002, p. 456). Ethical barriers to using animals for therapy do not exist either. The public health department may bar a dog from the kitchen, laundry, and dining hall, but this does not really pose a problem because therapy dogs quickly learn where they can go and where they aren't allowed.
Animals can be used very effectively to help sick people get better. Obviously, a nurse or therapist can't entirely turn a case over to an animal, but when an animal is carefully chosen and assigned, the physical and mental benefits for the patient are real. Animals that are trained for this work can be trusted. They seem to understand what they are there for -- to comfort and be a friend to somebody that is sick, disabled, or dying. They give unconditional love and don't care what the person looks like, how old they are, how sick or disturbed they may be. It makes sense to use animals for healing. Maybe someday when we see an animal in the hospital, it won't seem like a novelty. The animal will be like one of the staff.
Brodie, S., Biley, F.C., and Shewring, M. (2002). An exploration of the potential risks associated with using pet therapy in healthcare settings. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 11 (4), 444-456.
Demello, L. (1999). The effect of the presence of a companion-animal on physiological changes following the termination of cognitive stressors. Psychology & Health, 14 (5), 859.
Gunter, B. And Furnham, a. (1999). Are pets good for our physical well-being? In Pets and People: The Psychology of Pet Ownership, Chapter 5, 6. London: Wherr Publishing, 66-81/
Hooker, S.D., Freeman, L.H., and Stewart, P. (2002). Pet therapy research: A historical review. Holistic Nursing Practice, 16 (5), 17-23.
Kaminski, M., Pellino, T. And Wish, J. (2002). Play and pets: The physical and emotional impact of child-life and pet therapy on hospitalized children. Children's Health Care, 31 (4), 321-335.
Leaser, a. (2005). See Spot meditate: Utilizing the…