Hospital Pet Visiting Programs Can Unleash Healing Powers

Kathleen Louden

March 07, 2013

In This Article

A small but growing number of US hospitals are expanding their visitation policies to permit supervised visits in patient rooms from furry family members. Allowing patients' dogs and cats in treatment areas that were once off-limits to 4-legged creatures is part of a trend toward family-friendly patient care and increasing acceptance of integrative medicine, hospital personnel report.

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, one of the latest hospitals — and thought to be the first in the Chicago area — to adopt a formal visiting policy for pets, had its first patient-owned pet visit in February. Sadie the dachshund climbed onto the lap of her owner, Bernadette Slesinski-Evans, who from her hospital bed happily let her dog lick her face.

The visit took less than 2 days for staff to arrange, but the policy took almost 3 years to develop, said Diane Gallagher, RN, MS, associate vice president of nursing operations at Rush. The challenge, she said, "was how to make the policy safe for patients, employees, and visitors without making it burdensome to implement."

"When you say 'hospital and dog,' it doesn't sound like it fits," Gallagher said. "The hospital is not a resort, but this is a therapeutic intervention. It's one more tool we have to help patients get through what must be some of their worst days."

Or, in some cases, the patient's final days. Slesinski-Evans died weeks after her visit with Sadie. "I feel so lucky we were able to do this for her," Gallagher said.

She believes the pet visiting program, although becoming more common at hospitals, is still somewhat controversial because not everyone likes animals or thinks they should be in a hospital. Rush, she said, heard from only about 12 hospitals that have similar programs when it surveyed hospitals nationwide in 2010 while researching whether to allow pet visits.