Yoshi never went to nursing or medical school, and only weighs a few pounds, but he is a healer. The Yorkie can be found lifting spirits throughout Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. Yoshi has a job, and he is very good at it.
A member of Scripps Pet Therapy Program, Yoshi and 24 other canine volunteers can be found in patient rooms, waiting areas, the emergency department, the intensive care unit—all around the hospital. They break up monotony, but even more importantly, they provide hope for some of the most acute patients and their loved ones.
“We had a boy who was paralyzed and wasn’t very responsive,” says Jill Corrales, volunteer services manager at Scripps La Jolla. “His parents kept saying, ‘come up, we need more pet therapy.’ It’s the only time they saw any alertness from their son.”
This is not an isolated incident. Patients and families often request a canine consult. In some cases, physicians pull out their pads and write prescriptions. But these visits are far more than fun distractions. Research has shown that pet therapy has real clinical value.
According to a study from the Loyola University Health System, patients who received pet therapy after total joint replacement required 50 percent less pain medication. Related research has shown that dog ownership lowers the risk of a heart attack, has a positive effect on our hormones and reduces blood pressure.
James Modir, MD, a pain specialist at Scripps Clinic, is not surprised by these results. He points to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center that investigated whether pet-assisted therapy reduced pain for cancer patients. Results have been positive, but Dr. Modir notes that further study is needed. However, since this therapy is so safe, patients have little to lose.
“Pain causes anxiety and depression, which in turn can cause more pain,” says Dr. Modir. “The animals may be able to reduce anxiety, depression and, as a result, pain. Pet therapy may provide benefits similar to biofeedback and meditation.”
Naturally, there are rules for dogs to qualify for the program. According to Corrales, pets need canine good citizenship or a similar certification to begin the process. They are then tested in the hospital to determine how they react to people, elevators or beeping machines.
The program has become quite popular among patients, and there are even printed cards, similar to baseball cards, with pictures of the pets on the front and information about them on the back. The cards help remind patients of the good feelings they had during the visit and extend the value of the therapy.
“We are very proud of our Pet Therapy Program,” says Corrales. “The patients and families love it; the dogs get very excited, and clinicians see real benefit.”