Animal visitation has long provided emotional benefits in acute- and long-term care settings, but Julie Miller,
RN, BSN, CCRN,
and Katherine Maas,
RN, BSN, CCRN, believe the benefits of animal-assisted therapy go beyond “friendly, feel-good diversions.” They explained the therapy during a session at the recent National Teaching Institute™ in Los Angeles.
In animal-assisted therapy, the animals (usually dogs) can be used to improve balance, range of motion, endurance, and strengthening, as well as provide coma stimulation. Additionally, the animals promote family involvement and can even have a positive effect on the staff.
“We use the animal as the tool in therapeutic recovery of patients, incorporating a range of motion by nurses and physical, occupational, or speech therapists. We use the animal to make the patient exercise,” Miller said.
Of course, as with traditional pet visitation, some precautions must be taken. Animals shouldn’t be introduced to immunosuppressed patients, or those with burns, tracheostomies, open wounds, or allergies. It is also important to gain full administrative approval by educating administrators, physicians, nurses, and therapists about the program and how it differs from traditional pet visitation.
Early research shows the program is worth the extra effort. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety, improve the patient’s physiological effects and body image, and even reduce the length of stay.
The program uses specially trained animals that have been temperament tested with patients in 30-minute blocks. Two organizations—Therapet of Tyler, Tex., and Delta Society of Renton, Wash.—can help administer the program.
Miller is staff development educator in critical care at Trinity Mother Frances Health System in Tyler, Tex., and Maas is cardiovascular surgery case manager at the same institution.