Going into hospital for any length of time can be an overwhelming experience, and when feeling so vulnerable, seeing a friendly face can make all the difference. So what about seeing a friendly furry face with four paws and a wagging tail?
The world’s largest nursing union and professional body is developing national guidelines urging UK hospitals to be more welcoming to dogs and other animals on wards and even in anaesthesia departments before surgery.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) wants to encourage hospitals to explore animal therapy, such as patients having their own pets around for comfort and motivation, and trained dogs being used to aid recovery and reduce anxiety.
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Prompted by a survey of more than 750 nursing staff in December, which revealed 90% believe animals can benefit patients, the RCN is now drawing up a protocol for UK hospitals. Amanda Cheesley of the RCN said: “I’ve seen patients with animals in hospitals and in their homes – the difference it makes is remarkable.
“The RCN is calling for better, more consistent access to animals for all patients who can benefit, as the evidence is clear that as well as bringing joyful moments to people when they are unwell, the clinical benefits are tangible. Nurses have told us of patients with reduced anxiety, better interaction and a whole reason to live – and we should listen to these experiences.”
The RCN points out there is evidence to back up the fact that animals can improve patient care.
However, there is currently no national policy on pets or therapy animals in the NHS, and many nursing staff surveyed reported that animals were not allowed on wards where they worked.
Cheesley says the reluctance is down to concerns that animals spread infection and could upset other patients, but says these issues are easily solved: “Clearly, you can’t allow dogs onto the beds, or to wander from room to room, you need to make sure they have had their inoculations, but it should be possible to bring more animals into healthcare settings.”
She added: “Those [concerns] have to be taken into account but it doesn’t seem unreasonable for an elderly lady recovering from a hip operation to be wheeled out to meet her dog, or for him to be brought to her, to say hello.”
The RCN’s survey revealed more than 80% of nursing staff believe animals can improve communication issues for people with conditions such as autism, while 82% said that dogs encouraged physical activity, with many of those saying a dog’s mere presence aided recovery.
Aside from the physical, nine out of 10 nurses surveyed said animals can improve the health of patients with depression and other mental health problems.
Nearly half of those taking part had worked with animals in their career, and of those a huge 98% said it benefited the patient to have animal interaction.
Speaking to the BBC, Cheesley referenced examples she’d come across of both the physical and psychological benefits of trained animals and patient’s own pets in healthcare.
One was a young female cancer patient who was too scared to have a life-saving surgical procedure, but went through with the treatment by having a therapy dog with her as she was put under anaesthetic, and again when she was coming round afterwards.
Ultimately it allowed the staff to do a life-saving job
“The dog calmed her down, making it so much less traumatic for her and her parents. Ultimately it allowed the staff to do a life-saving job,” Cheesley explained.
She also cited a man who had had a brain injury who walked with his pet donkey to work on his balance.
The hope is that animal therapy will become more widely used and accepted, with hospitals considering the protocol before making a decision in each circumstance.
Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) has been proved to be useful for inpatients, and dogs in particular are known to have various health benefits across the board, not least reducing stress and anxiety, being used as alert dogs for people with conditions that cause seizures or blackouts, and even being used to sniff out cancer.
Some schools already use the services of small charities such as Dogs for Good, which provides assistance dogs for various needs, such as calming children with special educational needs enough to have vital immunisations – one school improved the immunisation rate from approximately half the pupils to nearly 100%.
The charity is also running an eight-week pilot scheme with the National Spinal Injuries Centre (NSIC) at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Trained therapy dogs work with patients in one-hour sessions, in some cases helping patients with limited movement progress with their exercise via workouts such as throwing a ball for the dog or playing with a tug toy, or simply providing psychological motivation and engagement.
Another project is Dementia Dog in collaboration with Alzheimer Scotland, exploring the difference an assistance dog can make to a person with dementia and their carer – helping to reduce anxieties, improve family relationships and help people get out more.
We hope that it will encourage all health services to consider how animals can help their patients
Dog handler Lyndsey Uglow – currently undertaking a research project at Southampton Children's Hospital to gather more evidence on the benefit of animals in hospitals – is working with the RCN, along with infection control specialists, hospital managers and The Humanimal Trust (set up by The Supervet’s Noel Fitzpatrick) on the protocol for wards, clinics and hospices.
It is hoped to be rolled out later this year.
Cheesley says of the guidelines: “Anyone who’s worked in this area can see the amazing impact animals have on the health of adults and children alike. However there are so many myths around the dangers of having animals in health care settings that most organisations are too concerned to try it out.
“This protocol will help to dispel these fears by supporting hospitals to include animals in the care they deliver in a safe and professional way. We hope that it will encourage all health services to consider how animals can help their patients and help us to remove the taboo from what is a really remarkable area of care.”
Images: iStock / Rex Features