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Pet Therapy In Healthcare: 4 Facts I Learned After Seeing My Dentist

I’ve never been the kind of person who was afraid of going to the dentist, though I can certainly understand why some people feel that way.

But after a series of rather unfortunate experiences with dentists over the past few years—including several thousand dollars’ worth of possibly unnecessary and definitely painful procedures—I found myself approaching my recent cleaning with more than a bit of wariness.

My wariness turned to surprise when I walked into the office and was greeted at the check-in desk by a big, friendly, tail-wagging golden retriever.

The receptionist explained that she was the dentist’s dog, and that she was a certified therapy animal. She usually stayed behind the check-in desk, but if she could sense a patient’s anxiety,  she would paw at the door to be let out, so that she could join you in the treatment area.

Part of me wondered if I should find this situation weird—I’d never heard of a therapy dog in a dentist’s office—and part of me wondered if she’d pick up on my nervousness during this visit.

It turns out, the answer to both of these questions was “no.”

A quick Google search for “therapy dogs in dentist office” showed me that my new dentist is not alone. Therapy dogs are making their way into dental practices across the US. As a July 2014 American Student Dental Association blog post asked: “If hospitals can do it, why can’t dental offices?

Now I wanted to know more about pet therapy in healthcare settings: Where is it happening? What are the benefits to patients? What about the risks? Here are 4 things I learned.

1. Pet Therapy Is Very Common In Hospitals.

Pet therapy in dentist offices seems to be a newer trend. This means that finding a local dentist whose office has a therapy dog might still be difficult for most people.

The same is not true for hospitals, however.

pet therapy

2. The Risks Of Allowing Therapy Animals Into Hospitals Are Unclear.

As the Modern Healthcare article explained, there is some evidence connecting exposure to animals with hospital outbreaks of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and clostridium difficile. But this evidence is largely anecdotal.

So, aside from the obvious risk posed by allowing animals near patients who are potentially allergic to them, there doesn’t seem to be enough data to definitively say that pet therapy in hospitals is a bad idea.

3. The Benefits Of Pet Therapy Are Wide-Ranging.

According to Pet Partners, a non-profit specializing in animal-assisted interventions—including pet therapy—there’s plenty of evidence to show that therapy dogs can help patients with a variety of health challenges, including:

  • Decreasing patient pain levels—and increasing hospital stay satisfaction—after joint arthroplasty
  • Decreasing pain and improving mood in fibromyalgia patients in outpatient waiting areas
  • Promoting “positive social behaviors” in children with autism 

4. Hospital Pet Therapy Guidelines Are Anti-Cat.

Okay, that’s not the main point of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America’s March 2015 guidelines. But I’m a proud cat mom, and Scientific American’s headline, “New Hospital Guidelines Say No Cats Allowed,” certainly doesn’t help.

However, here’s what the guidelines actually suggest:

  • Pet therapy dogs should be at least 1 year old.
  • Dogs and their handlers should complete a formal training program and pass an evaluation before joining a pet therapy program.
  • Hospitals should look for animals with certification from legitimate pet therapy training groups and organizations.
  • Pet therapy animals should undergo a veterinary check-up annually and be up-to-date on rabies vaccinations.
  • Pet therapy animals should be brushed to remove any loose hair or dander before they enter the hospital.
  • Pet therapy animals should be kept away from “invasive devices” like catheters or bandages.
  • Cats should not be allowed in the hospital setting.

I’m disappointed that I probably won’t find a therapy cat at my next doctor or dentist appointment. But as an all-around animal lover, I am happy that healthcare organizations are taking advantage of something that pet owners have known about for a long time: the power of animal companionship to ease our ills.

Does your healthcare organization have a pet therapy program? Tell us about it in the comments.

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