As a CVICU nurse in Eastern Texas, Kaylee Browning, BSN, RN, CCRN, sees plenty of patients from farms and rural areas. While she uses modern medicine to treat their injuries, Kaylee is passionate about another type of treatment that she learned from her own upbringing in the country – the power of pets.
When she’s not at the hospital, you’ll find Kaylee volunteering with a pet therapy organization that uses specially trained animals to promote health and healing for patients in ICUs, rehab facilities and more. Kaylee says animal interaction has proven benefits, and it’s what brought her into nursing to begin with.
Can you talk about your journey to nursing and how animals were a part of it?
I grew up in the countryside, and my mother taught me from a very young age to love and care for animals. Not only did we take in stray dogs and cats, but being in the country, we also cared for many infant rabbits, squirrels and moles. I even rehabbed a lot of frogs and birds. I realized that veterinary medicine was probably not a good course for me, because it was difficult to see animals in such trauma. I knew, however, that I loved science, and I had the compassion. That's where I figured out nursing was perfect for me, because I was still able to use my love for someone's life. Unlike with animals though, I was able to think clearly when a trauma or bad surgery comes in.
How did you get involved in pet therapy?
I was caring for patients, making a difference and really enjoying it, but I still had that small void in my career of wanting to work with animals. When the therapy dogs came in, I knew that was going to fill that small gap that I'd always had. I originally got involved because I was a new nurse in the ICU, and I would see these dogs come visit the patients. I would run up to the volunteers and ask, "Hey, can I pet the dog? I know they're for the patients, but I just want to say hi to the dog real quick." The volunteers would say, "Oh, of course, we're here for you too, please pet the dog." I loved seeing the dogs so much that I signed up with our local organization, Therapet, and I’ve been volunteering with them for five years.
What kind of animals do you work with, and which ones do patients enjoy the most?
A majority of the pet volunteers are dogs, and we have some cats in the program as well. We have one bird – an Umbrella Cockatoo named Cuddles. As far as patient reaction, it's always the cute dogs, or the really big or really small ones that get that initial “Oh my gosh” reaction. We have a little Shih Tzu that wears a bow in her hair, and that always brings many smiles.
Do you have animals that volunteer?
No, unfortunately they don’t (laughs). I have three animals at home, but none of them are, how do I put it… none of them are polite enough to come into the critical care environment. So I volunteer just myself.
You mentioned that the pet visits are not just beneficial to patients, but to the staff as well. How so?
I think we're most beneficial to staff nurses. I cannot tell you how many times we're walking through the hall with the dogs – going to visit another patient – and a group of nurses that has had an absolute terrible day, sees us and their eyes light up. They’ll say to us, "Oh my gosh, I had a terrible day, can I pet the dogs for a minute?" So we stop and we visit with the nurses, just for five minutes. Every time we do that, you can tell that their overall demeanor has improved, and now we're sending them home, not with that black cloud over their head anymore.
Can you talk about the general benefits of pet therapy with critical care patients?
We get all kinds of patients in our ICU. You have critically sick and then you have the patients who are starting to get better. There are multiple studies showing that our brains release endorphins, when not only do you see a dog, but when you pet a dog and you interact with it. We can benefit patients by decreasing their stress levels. It helps decrease blood pressure, and it releases the endorphins that therefore makes them happier.
Patients also have a lot of edema – lots of fluids in the body – because they’re bedbound. So I can do passive range of motion, by helping the patients pet the dogs. Infection prevention barriers are always applied of course. The dog will lay its head on the patient's bed, and then I'll assist the patient in petting the dog. The patient thinks that they're just getting to have a dog visit, but I'm actually assisting them with passive and active range of motion.
Are there concerns about having animals in an ICU or hospital setting?
If the program is run correctly like ours is, we have very strict protocols and practices. Our dogs have rules as far as cleanliness and behavior before we allow them to see patients. We understand patients are immunocompromised and high risk, and we take that very seriously. The benefit that pets can bring to patients is an incredible treatment in itself.
Have you had a memorable patient who was helped by pet therapy?
There was one instance where we had an intubated patient and who kept going into atrial fibrillation [Afib] with rapid ventricular response [RVR]. We tried many different treatments, but nothing successfully converted them. The patient was fairly stable, so we asked to bring a dog in just to see if it would help. Of course, the patient was intubated, and they didn't know the dog was in the room. We put the dog’s head on the bed, and we started doing that passive range of motion petting. That patient, I kid you not, converted out of RVR within five minutes of petting the dog. It was amazing to witness.
How has your experience with pet therapy impacted you as a nurse?
Every time I bring the dogs in, I get a chill down my spine at some point in the visit. Sometimes I’ll go into a patient's room and I can tell they don't feel good. I’ll ask them if we can bring a dog in to visit them. Sometimes they’ll say, "Oh, I don't know. I just don't feel good." Then I’ll ask, "Do you like dogs?" They respond saying, "Yes, I love dogs."
So, we bring the dog in and then I'll come in and ask how it was. Oftentimes the patient will say, "Oh my gosh, you don't know how badly I needed that." Or they’ll say, "You just made my day." You can tell that it is genuine, too. It’s those small moments where it really hits me – I just made a difference in this patient's life.
Editor’s Note: You can learn more about pet therapy and Therapet by vising their virtual booth at the Critical Care Expo at NTI 2021. Kaylee Browning will be teaching two different lectures with CE’s available about pet therapy.