patient at a children's hospital with dog
When you're sick, your four-legged family members can provide enormous comfort just by being there. When you're sick enough to be hospitalized, though, pets generally are not allowed to visit. But a growing number of hospitals around the country are allowing furry family members to visit — with great results.

Just ask the Rev. Susan Roy, director of Pastoral Care Services at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who started the Faithful Friends personal pet visitation program at the hospital in 2008. "Some of our patients are hospitalized for upwards of six months or longer," Roy says. "When a family pet visits, it's a real morale booster for the patient. It's comforting for them to be able to bring a piece of their normal life to the hospital."

Pat Kirkland, manager of Family Support Services and head of the Healing Paws program at Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., agrees. "Many of our patients are in a lot of pain and missing their best friends," Kirkland says. "And no matter how familiar a patient becomes with the hospital setting, it's still the hospital setting."

For Kirkland, it's a magic moment to see patients and their pets reunited. "The dogs get so excited to see their human again, and the kids really perk up when they know their pet is going to visit," she says. "If we can make their day a little bit brighter by bringing in their best friend, we consider that an accomplishment."

Kathie Land, whose daughter Samantha took advantage of Healing Paws, has nothing but praise for the program. "Samantha had been hospitalized for most of the summer when we brought Lulu, our longhaired Chihuahua, to visit," Land recalls. "Samantha missed the puppy so much. She played with Lulu, petted her, walked her up and down the hallway and just loved on her the whole time. And Lulu was just so excited; she was bouncing everywhere."

Pet Therapy vs. Personal Pet Visitation

Evidence shows that visiting with a pet while hospitalized enhances mood and well-being, reduces anxiety and sometimes even shortens the length of the hospital stay. Many hospitals have pet therapy programs, which are volunteer programs in which specially trained pets come to a hospital or other health care facility and visit with the infirm. But when it's your own dog visiting, it can be even more special.

"Pets are as much a part of the family structure as any other member," Roy says. "We realized that if you're hospitalized, you would be much happier seeing your own pet rather than a therapy animal, so that's why we focused our program on the patient's own pet." Land couldn't agree more. "Having therapy dogs come in is good, but being able to have your child's own puppy visit is just a whole lot better," she says.

Some Restrictions Apply

Rules for these types of visitation programs vary. Some have a designated area of the hospital where the visit takes place; others allow families to bring the pet right to the patient's room. The Faithful Friends program is generally used by patients who are hospitalized for longer periods, those potentially approaching end of life or patients whose pet is suffering from duress by being separated from his owner. Pets can visit for an entire day, and both dogs and cats are allowed. Healing Paws allows only canine visits at this time, with visits generally lasting up to an hour.

Every personal pet visitation program has measures in place to ensure patient and staff safety at all times. Says Kirkland, "In addition to bathing and grooming before the visit, each pet must have a health certificate signed by his veterinarian that indicates the animal is up-to-date on immunizations, flea- and tick-free, and relatively good-natured."

But one thing is universal: "We are all about making our patients as happy as we can while they are in our care," Kirkland says. "We try to overcome any obstacles so that we can reunite our kids with their pets."

Visits Affect More Than Just the Patient

Interestingly, having a pet visit affects more than just the patient. "When a pet comes by, there is a lot of increased energy around the staff," Roy says. "And the family is happy because they feel like they are doing something, however small, to help their loved one."

But perhaps it's the pet on whom the visit has the biggest impact. "The animals really seem to understand that their loved one is in pain. You can tell that they just get it," Roy says. "We had one patient who was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. His dog, a 100-pound Mastiff, was placed on a gurney that we could raise up to bed level. The dog then got onto the bed and lay perfectly still next to his owner for hours."

Today, only a handful of hospitals around the country allow pet dogs and cats to visit their loved ones. But based on the success of existing programs and the obvious love people of all ages have for their four-legged family members, we expect that number to grow exponentially in the coming years.

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