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Sarasota Memorial's Pet Therapy Program Brings Joy and Support to Patients

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PHOTO GALLERY: Pet therapy at SMH


Kirby!It turns out dogs are more than man’s best friend. They’re pretty good at making the sick feel better, too.

Pet therapy programs are becoming increasingly popular at hospitals across the country as studies demonstrate that visits from therapeutic dogs lowered anxiety, stress and heart and lung pressure among patients young to old.

“The minute those adorable animals enter their rooms, you can see and feel the transformation,” said Elizabeth Bornstein, LCSW, a social worker who helps coordinate the pet therapy and healing arts programs on Sarasota Memorial’s oncology unit. “You see their eyes light up, big smiles on their faces and the worries of their world just fade away.”

Even though the dogs’ visit may last only 15 or 20 minutes, the healing benefits and enjoyment from those simple visit last much longer.

Several studies have measured patients’ physiological responses before, during and after the visits. Among other findings, the studies revealed:

  • Anxiety – Measured by a standard rating scale, anxiety levels dropped 24 percent for those visited by a pet therapy dog and volunteer team (compared to a 10 percent drop for those visited by just a volunteer, and no change for the group with no visit.
  • Stress – Levels of epinephrine, a hormone the body makes when under stress, dropped about 17 percent in patients visited by a pet therapy dog and volunteer (compared to just 2 percent in those visited by a volunteer alone; meanwhile, levels rose about 7 percent in the unvisited group).
  • Heart & lung function – Blood pressure dropped 10 percent after a visit by the pet therapy dog and volunteer, while it increased 3 percent for those visited by a volunteer and 5 percent for those who got no visit. Lung pressure declined 5 percent for those visited by a dog and a volunteer. It rose in the other two groups.

At Sarasota Memorial, the pet therapy program has helped patients for more than a decade. It was started in the hospital’s Comprehensive Rehabilitation Unit 14 years ago for patients recovering from difficult surgeries or neurological conditions, such as stroke, who might be in the hospital for several weeks. Since that time, the program has been expanded to the hospital’s inpatient Pediatric and Oncology units. They also visit people in Sarasota Memorial’s Nursing & Rehabilitation Center off Clark Road.

In some situations, the dogs can be used as a tool in therapy sessions to focus on increasing upper and lower extremity strengthening, fine motor coordination, trunk flexion, increasing problem solving and memory skills, and improving auditory comprehension, said Angie Pollack, a recreational therapist who coordinates the program in Sarasota Memorial’s rehab units.

The dogs used in the program – a Shih Tzu, Bichon Frise, two Golden Retrievers, a Yorkshire Terrier and Maltese — were carefully screened for health and behavioral issues by the Humane Society and approved by a pet therapy certifying organization prior to being admitted to program. Hospital staff also screen patients prior to a visit to make sure they are not afraid of dogs.

The benefits of the program also extend to volunteers and staff. When the dogs come padding down the hospital corridors, they are greeted like longtime friends.

“There’s something really profound about the way that we as people connect with animals,” said Pollack. “It’s so special having them around.”

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