Welcoming Pets into Healthcare

Many people have warm childhood memories of pets, whether growing up with a family dog or caring for farm animals. Pets can help teach children responsibility and compassion, and they provide the comfort of companionship for people of all ages. The bond between human and animal is the basis for pet therapy, which is used for treating a variety of physical and mental health issues. Recognizing the transformative power of pet therapy, the Miller-Dwan Foundation supports Animal-Assisted Therapy at Essentia Health, one of the first healthcare organizations to recognize the benefits of using animals to help patients heal. When the hospital established a therapy dog program in 1993, there were only two other facilities in the country with similar programs. Today, thanks to support from the Miller-Dwan Foundation, the program has helped thousands of people in a variety of departments, including mental health and physical rehabilitation.

Benefits of Pet Therapy
Studies have shown many benefits of pet therapy, from helping reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health, to producing a calming effect that can help alleviate pain and reduce stress. Many hospitals and nursing homes use AAT programs to help reduce feelings of depression and isolation in their patients, as well as stimulating mental activity through interaction with animals. At Miller-Dwan Foundation’s Amberwing – Center for Youth & Family Well-Being, for instance, a boxer dog named Elsa knows just when to offer a loving kiss, snuggle in a lap or ease tensions in the waiting room.

For some patients, having a pet present during a medical procedure can reduce anxiety and stress. Following heart attacks, studies found that pet owners had higher one-year survival rates (1), and physical rehabilitation patients have been motivated to work harder and recover faster when partnered with a pet. At the Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center a Rottweiler named Shine helps patients regain motor control through petting, grooming or games of fetch and relearn speech with calls and commands. Those who have experienced a visit from Shine know that a friendly, non-judgmental guest with a wagging tail can make a huge difference.

Therapy animals can also be particularly beneficial for children, who can sometimes express themselves better with pets than with other children or adults. Dogs and cats are often used to calm children who have experienced physical or mental trauma, and in pediatric cancer studies, having a pet improved children’s motivation to participate in treatment, maintain motivation, and increase feelings of wanting to “get better” (1).

Supporting Pet Therapy
Despite the clear benefits of animal-assisted therapy and its increasing use and acceptance by medical professionals in various fields, AAT suffers from a lack of financial support.

The requirements for therapy dogs are numerous and detailed, because clinicians are very specific about their patients’ goals and expectations during recovery. “It takes a lot of energy and effort to train a therapy dog. And once the training is complete, vet checks, grooming and the expense of other necessities amount to far more than the cost of your average family pet,” says Joan Oswald of the Miller-Dwan Foundation.

Whether used to increase motivation for recovery, ease anxiety or loneliness, facilitate communication or provide companionship, healthcare providers at Essential Health recognize the transformative role animals can have in our health. You can help support the benefits provided to our community through the AAT program with a gift to the Miller-Dwan Foundation.

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