Hospital offers therapy dogs for sick kids; reduces recovery times by ‘up to 30%’

Therapy dog Zach visits a sick patient in hospital. Source: Facebook
Therapy dog Zach visits a sick patient in hospital. Source: Facebook

Medical professionals around the world are monitoring the results of a trial by an Australian hospital in the city of Newcastle with great interest, after the introduction of therapy dogs was found to help reduce the recovery times of seriously ill patients by ‘up to 30%’.

The idea of being able to bring pets into a hospital is one that is quite unique, with the majority of health centres around the world banning animals of all descriptions due to fears about them spreading germs that could harm patients.

However, Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital, in conjunction with local non-profit group Delta Therapy Dogs, has recently conducted a trial which could go a long way to turning conventional wisdom about animals and hospital on its head.

The preliminary findings from the trial, which have taken local specialists by surprise, has found that bringing the dogs to visit sick patients has sharply boosted their spirits and led to an unprecedented reduction in recovery times.

“We had the hypothesis that bringing these dogs in to visit sick patients would cheer them up and bring them a bit of joy,” said one of the program’s volunteers. “What we didn’t realize at the time was that the interaction with animals also had a real therapeutic benefit to the patients that they visited.”

Zach poses outside the John Hunter Hospital.
Zach poses outside the John Hunter Hospital.

As part of the trial, pet owners in the local community who had dogs aged between 18 months and 10 years were asked to volunteer their time and come into the hospital during the week.

Extra care was taken to only select dogs which had happy temperaments and showed no signs of aggressive behavior. These dogs were then carefully washed prior to their hospital visit to ensure the risk of bringing in any germs was minimized.

Patients were asked if they wished to spend time with a therapy dog before they were brought into each room, and the volunteers were impressed with the level of interest. “We had very few people decline a visit from a therapy dog when it was offered.”

In particular, volunteers recalled one young girl who was in the hospital who had been particuarly delighted to have a visit from a therapy dog.“The very first day that we walked in, the mother couldn’t believe it — the girl actually spoke and had a smile on her face. She wasn’t speaking, wasn’t doing anything beforehand, she was just lying there. From that first visit, the girl just accelerated in her recovery.”

One of the dogs that has visited the hospital the most frequently is a nine-year old Maltese cross poodle named Zach (pictured). His owner spoke to local journalists about her experience with the program: “I found that I got great enjoyment from giving back to the community, and the dogs enjoyed it as well. The joy that you give to others, and just to see a smile on people’s faces — to give them an opportunity for non-medical touch, to be able to cuddle and pat an animal.”

Experts involved in the program were shocked when the data collected revealed a sharp reduction in the recovery time of the patients who had participated in the therapy dogs program. “Patients who opted to have regular visits from the dogs were discharged, on average, 30% quicker than patients who declined a visit from the dogs,” said one researcher. “Our theory is that the interaction with the dogs is having a direct, positive therapeutic impact that is helping patients overcome their health issues quicker.”

International health organizations have been quick to commission further studies into therapy dogs, with hospitals in the United Kingdom and France all planning to trial programs of their own in 2017. “The evidence is black and white in this case,” said one expert. “The positive impact of dogs in hospitals far outweighs the risks, and once these trials are complete we hope more hospitals around the world will adopt their own therapy dog programs.”

However, it could be a long wait for hospitals in the US & Canada to have their own therapy dog programs. While a number of small, independent hospitals in North America have explored their own trials, larger state-run medical providers have long banned animals of any description from entering their doors.

“It’s going to take a long time [in the US] to change attitudes and get hospitals to accept pets,” said one expert. “At this point, there just simply isn’t enough public support for the idea. In future, if enough people start demanding therapy dogs in hospitals, I think we’ll see the authorities change their mind on the issue.”