Imagine you are a child receiving treatment in a hospital for several weeks, scared and sad. One morning a volunteer walks in with a fluffy, adorable dog – wouldn’t your spirits be lifted? More and more children’s hospitals are turning to pet therapy to help heal young patients’ bodies and minds.
Allergic and infection control issues aside, the idea of dogs and other pets visiting children in hospitals seems so intuitively wonderful. Therapy Dogs International, a “volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers,” assists institutions who would like to provide pet therapy for their patients. Founded in 1976 in New Jersey, the non-profit TDI has developed a careful screening and training process, including a canine “temperament evaluation,” and currently has over 12,000 dogs and 9500 handlers registered in their service. One special gal, Jane – a 2 year-old Portuguese water dog – is profiled in a recent piece in the San Jose (CA) Mercury News. Jane is one of several dogs who visit children at the Albany Medical Center. As reported in the article, Dr. Richard Sills, director of Albany’s Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, comments that “the dogs cheer up children and make hospitals more welcoming.” Kelly Morrone, Albany’s volunteer services coordinator, laments that “the demand is always more than the supply…(there are) never enough dogs.”
Another organization mentioned in the Mercury News column is the Delta Society, an international, non-profit, human service organization charged with “promoting human health and well-being through interactions with companion animals.” The Delta Society, founded in Oregon in 1977, focuses on the triangular relationship between pet owners, pets and care-givers. Their website provides links to a wealth of information on the positive effects of animals on human health.
A recent publication in the Journal of Holistic Nursing (Sobo EJ, et al: Canine visitation (pet) therapy: pilot data on decreases in child pain perception. J Holist Nurs 24: 51-57, 2006) describes a pilot pet therapy program in the Children’s Hospital in San Diego. 25 children, ages 5-18, who underwent surgery, reported less pain post-operatively after canine visitation therapy. While only a pilot study, the data are encouraging and indicate that pet therapy may play a valuable role in relieving distress in hospitalized children.