Maybe pets are the best medicine

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For many people, pets are family, as loved and adored as their own children.  So when someone is sick and confined to a hospital one of the biggest comforts they miss out on is the love of their pet.  Many hospitals do not allow family pets to come and visit their humans, but that policy is changing as anecdotal evidence mounts that letting their pets visit helps patients during recovery from illness.

Such is the case for Ruth London who last year was in intensive care in a hospital in Boca Raton, battling pneumonia and hallucinating.  Her husband Ernest hatched a plan to try and help, and with the help and consent of her doctor arranged a visit from a special friend.  Delilah, a fluffy white Maltese who Ruth adores, was allowed to come and visit.

At first other hospital staff objected, but thanks to the doctor she found her way in to Ruth’s bedside and as she nuzzled her hand, Ruth showed signs of coming out of the delirium “just a little bit,” Mr. London recalled, and began to remember where she was. “It was a turning point,” he said. “From that point on, she seemed to take a turn for the better.”

“I love that dog. I love her so much,” said Mrs. London, now 74.  Unfortunately that visit did not open the floodgates to personal pet visits, and hospital policy against it is strictly enforced.  But at many other hospitals across North America the policy is shifting, and sometimes a doctor can authorize a visit.  One of the issues cited in keeping pets out is the fear that they will bring in or help spread germs around.  Indeed most institutions require certification from a vet declaring the pet to be healthy as well as requiring the pet be groomed prior to visiting.  And of course, if the room is shared the other occupant must agree to the visit.

“We have not had any problems,” said the Rev. Susan Roy, director of pastoral care services at the University of Maryland Medical Center, whose “your pet can visit” policy has been in place since 2008.  Sometimes the visit is harder on the pet than anyone else as they respond viscerally to an owner’s illness and may take a day or two to recover from a visit.

In general, although there are no scientific studies to prove it, the consensus is that the benefits of pet visits far outweigh the risks, an idea that seems like common sense to many pet owners.  Anne Mahler, 57, a clinical nurse specialist at Hebrew Senior Life, agrees.  When her father was in hospital recovering from hip surgery he was not allowed to see his dog Molly in his room but a back room visit was arranged with springer spaniel.  “My dad sat there sobbing,” Ms. Mahler said. Afterwards, her father began eating better, his attitude lightened, and he seemed determined to do everything possible to return home to join Molly.

People’s pets are their family, and they love each other unconditionally so letting them be together in times of stress seems like the natural thing to do for many people.  Hopefully this idea will grow in popularity and be commonplace before long.

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