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Pet Visits: Medicine for the Soul

Photo By Paul Miller

HOUSTON - Mae Hammond had a rough couple of days in the hospital. Recovering slowly after surgery, the cancer patient received a powerful pick-me-up when she was able to see a familiar face with a cold, wet nose.

Hammond received a visit in the hospital by her dog Princess, a stray she adopted six years ago. Princess' trip to the hospital was the first personal pet visit at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, in a new program for critically ill patients.

Typically, pet therapy involves the use of animals that do not belong to the patients.

"This is wonderful. To me, having her here makes all the difference in the world," Hammond said, as she stroked her pet's ears.

The pet visitation program allows personal pets to visit their owners in the hospital for a short time, usually about an hour. The program - the first of its kind in Houston - provides an extra measure of support for patients who are terminal or seriously ill.

"Because they give comfort and unconditional love, pets have a special place in their families' hearts," said Kelli Gershon, an advanced practice nurse at Methodist.

"Enabling a patient to see his or her favorite pet is like medicine for the soul."

Methodist works in partnership with PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) Houston, a locally based nonprofit group, to make sure pets have proper vaccinations and temperament to make such a visit, and to transport the animals to and from the hospital.

Donna Dishman, the chief operating officer of PAWS Houston, brought Princess in a pet carrier to the critical care unit where Hammond was receiving care. When Hammond saw her little black-and-white pet, she cried with happiness.

"When you are sick, it's not a small thing for your cat to curl up in your lap or your dog to nuzzle your hand," said Dishman.

Many hospitals offer animal assisted therapy, a practice that dates back to the 18th century. Patients are more comfortable and responsive after seeing, touching and talking to an animal. Some recent research even suggests that contact with a pet has a therapeutic benefit for the sick.

"Beginning in 1980, researchers began exploring how pet ownership affected physical and mental health, such as reducing tension and keeping down cholesterol levels," said Dr. Marcia Levetown, director of palliative care at Methodist.

"In addition, studies indicate that simply having an animal visit in a health care situation is also beneficial."

"Pets have strong bonds with their masters," Levetown said. "Seeing, touching and talking to a pet in the hospital is a powerful gift for these patients, at a time when they really need it the most."

PAWS Houston, founded in 2002, helps low-income people living with disabling illnesses to keep their pets by providing pet food, veterinary care, grooming, dog walking, emergency foster care and community education. PAWS services also include care for a patient's pet at home while the patient is hospitalized.