Animal assisted therapy

in Features

Animal assisted therapy is an alternative or complementary type of therapy that includes the use of animals in a treatment. It falls under the realm of Animal Assisted Intervention, which encompasses any intervention that includes an animal in a therapeutic context such as emotional support animals, service animals trained to assist with daily activities, and animal assisted activity. 

Being around animals can help lower our blood pressure and heart rate and reduce our anxiety and tensions.  Of course, animals make people feel less isolated and alone. More generally, even patting a dog can lower your risk of heart attack, seizure and stroke. 

Animal-assisted therapy can be classified by the type of animal, the targeted population, and how the animal is incorporated into the therapeutic plan. The most commonly used types of animal-assisted therapy are canine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted therapy. The goal of animal-assisted therapy is to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning and literature reviews state that animals can be useful for educational and motivational effectiveness for participants. Studies have documented the positive effects of the therapy as reported on subjective self-rating scales and on objective physiological measures such as blood pressure and hormone levels.

Pets in Hospital is a scheme funded and coordinated by University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) Charity whereby volunteers bring their dogs in to visit patients and staff around our hospitals. The scheme has been running since July 2018 and has been incredibly successful.

UHB Charity started Pets in Hospital, as research has shown that animals can help reduce anxiety, stress and perceived pain levels through distraction therapy, and overall can have a positive impact on improving patient wellbeing. They can also help enhance patient interaction and communication and create a friendly and positive working environment for the staff on the wards. Overall, pets can be a comfort to patients, families and staff and we have definitely seen this through our scheme.

Pets in Hospital currently have 12 dogs which, prior to Covid-19, visited patients around the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham on a regular basis. Monty, Isla, Coco, Ozzy, Basil, Bailey, Stella, Bella, Bonnie, Tommy, Bella and Tilly are all our dogs are who well groomed, wear official Pets in Hospital uniform and are badged. They have all been specially assessed by are up to date with vaccinations and are microchipped. They carried out regular visits to patients on wards such as Radiotherapy and the Cancer Centre, Young Persons Cancer unit, Critical Care and the older person’s wards.

Senior Fundraising and Communications Officer and Pets in Hospital Coordinator, Ellie Pocock said: ‘Coordinating this scheme has been a pleasure. Not only has the feedback from staff, patients and families been remarkable, but I have been able to see the benefits of these visits first hand. I have seen the extremely positive effects the dogs have on patients, putting a big smile on their face, improving their communication and interaction, which in turn improves their hospital experience.’

For those of us who love dogs, we know that being around a calm and loving animal can help to lift spirits and reduce anxiety.  For many people, the companionship of a four-legged friend has been source of comfort throughout their life, and research has proven that patients can benefit from interacting with a dog whilst in hospital. Not only can the presence of a friendly and calm dog bring joy to a patient, it can aid interaction with staff and family members, and improve their wellbeing.

Manuela Castello is a volunteer. Here are her thoughts on what volunteering means to her

‘Stella started as Pets as Therapy dog and when I heard there was the possibility of volunteering at the QE, I jumped at this chance as I was a patient myself at QE and I wanted to give something back. 

Stella is a Maremma Sheepdog, an ancient Italian breed of dog, traditionally used to protect the sheep while they are up in the mountains in Italy.

Stella is a special dog. She is so sweet and happy, and even if she is a big dog, somehow she is very gentle and you would not realize that she is actually there! I used to visit Critical care and the Cancer Centre (a department very dear to me), and my role was just to introduce Stella to anyone who was looking to cuddle a big soft bear. Being able to see the change of expression in patients is priceless; the ability to give a few minutes of comfort, happiness and put a smile on someone, even if in very difficult moments, makes you realize how fragile and unpredictable life is, and how much we should cherish every moment. I remember once we were up in a ward on the seventh floor, this patient had not talked for some time, but when she saw Stella, she spoke! It was a very humbling moment for everyone present. You would need many pages to explain the benefits of a dog in hospital, putting a smile on someone’s face, give hope even for a brief moment, and hoping that if one day you are in the same situation, a big dog would come to see you and will bright up your day.’

Animal therapy builds on a concept called the human-animal bond which describes people’s desire to interact with and relate to animals. For many people, by interacting with a friendly animal, they can form a bond with them. This bond can produce a calming state in the person.

This bond itself may help the person in several ways:

• reducing boredom

• increasing movement and activity through walks and play

• providing companionship and decreasing loneliness 

• increasing social interactions

• improving mood and general well-being

The positive interactions with an animal may lead to benefits in the mind and body, such as reduced stress and an overall more balanced mental and emotional state.

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