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Pet therapy: Is medicine going to the dogs?

Most of us have experienced the joy of playing with a furry friend, and pets are a great way to bring more joy into your life. But did you know that having a pet may be good for your physical and mental well-being? Studies show that pets can improve emotional and physical conditions, loneliness, depression and loss of mobility.

I sat down with the Healthy Set Go team to talk more about pet therapy and my experiences with my own therapy dog, Mister Sox. 

Mr. Sox headshotHealthy Set Go: What is pet therapy?
William C. Downey, MD, medical director for Allina Health Home Health and Allina Health Hospice & Palliative Care: 
Pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.

Animal-assisted activities, on the other hand, have a more general purpose, such as providing comfort and enjoyment for nursing home residents.

Mister Sox, a Portuguese Water dog, was a great therapy dog who, for over 10 years, loved to work. He was a dog with a heart and started visiting patients with me when he was three years old.


Mr. Sox with patientHow does it work?
In general, therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the quality of life for others. Imagine you're in the hospital. Your doctor mentions the hospital's pet therapy service and asks if you'd be interested. You say yes, and your doctor arranges for someone to tell you more about the program. Soon after that, an assistance dog and its handler visit your hospital room. They stay for 10 or 15 minutes. You're invited to pet the dog and ask the handler questions.

After the visit, you realize you're happy, relaxed and feeling a bit more optimistic. And, you're already looking forward to the dog's next visit.

I had patients who referred to Mister Sox as Dr. Sox because they just felt better after a visit with him. He was a good companion to many patients.


Mr. Sox full body shotWho can benefit from pet therapy?
Pet therapy has been shown to significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems. I had dementia patients who came out of themselves when visiting with Mister Sox. Petting a dog touches different parts of the brain and really brings out different emotions.

And it's not only the ill person who reaps the benefits. Family members and friends who sit in on animal visits say they feel better, too. I once had a patient who had a hard time letting go of his mom. Mister Sox went over to him and put his head on the man's lap. It was an innate ability Mister Sox had to develop a relationship with a family.

Does pet therapy have risks?
The biggest concern is safety and sanitation. Most hospitals, and other facilities that use pet therapy, have stringent rules to ensure that the animals are clean, vaccinated, well trained and screened for appropriate behavior. In Mister Sox's case, he was certified through the American Kennel Club to ensure safety for all patients and visitors.

Pet therapy at Allina Health
About a dozen certified therapy dogs are part of Allina Health's pet therapy offering. They make regular visits to our hospice care facilities and make special visits on request. 

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