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Pet Visitation Program Calms Cardiac Patients

During a hospital visit, patients may feel anxious, scared or lonely, not only because they are sick, but also because they are in a new, unfamiliar environment. In an effort to provide patients with a safe diversion from being in the hospital, the University Medical Center of El Paso telemetry unit – which treats cardiac and stroke patients – launched a pet visitation program in February 2012 that has helped boost patient morale and reduce stress levels.

According to Cardiovascular Services Nurse Manager Veronica Ortiz, RN, the pet visitation program started after one patient who had many pets at home asked whether one of his pets could visit him in the hospital. “Many patients were able to care for themselves prior to being admitted. All of a sudden they are sick and in an environment where they can no longer do their own self-care and normal activities, like eating, bathing or playing with a pet. Because of this, many patients may get depressed about the fact that they are in a different environment than they were before.”

While staff could not allow the patient’s own pet in the hospital because of safety concerns, the unit decided to partner with Paws for Love – an El Paso Humane Society program that dispatches pet therapy teams to schools, hospitals and other health care facilities – to bring in a pet for the patient to visit.

According to Ortiz, the patient experienced immediate physical and emotional benefits from pet therapy. “We measured the patient’s pulse and oxygenation level before the visit and then measured the patient’s vital signs again during the visit. His oxygenation actually improved, his pulse decreased, and his heart rate decreased,” Ortiz says. “We were amazed by how that visit calmed him and actually improved his vital signs, so after that, we decided we should start doing this for all of our cardiac patients.”

Now, pet therapy is available on the telemetry unit every Friday morning, when patients can interact with Rusty, a cocker spaniel, for approximately 15 minutes each. To participate, patients must sign a consent form and meet certain safety requirements, including:

  • Cannot be allergic to animals
  • Cannot have open wounds
  • Cannot be in isolation, in critical status or immunocompromised
  • Cannot have altered mental status

During Rusty’s visit, patients may interact with the pet in different ways, depending on their health status. “For stroke patients, touch is very important, so petting and hugging the dog can help relieve stress, but other patients who are more mobile may actually get out of bed and play with the dog,” Ortiz says. In addition, Ortiz notes that all of the dogs in the pet therapy program are rescue dogs that are trained to be in the hospital environment. “When the dogs visit the patients, volunteers also tell the story about where the dog came from, that they are a rescue dog, and how they were trained.”

Pet therapy dog with two members of UMC El Paso staff

Pet therapist Rusty with UMC El Paso staff

Ortiz credits the program thus far with providing special patient benefits. “One stroke patient whose left side was largely immobile made such a great effort to interact with the pet. He used his good arm to raise his affected arm over the dog to hug him, to feel him, to touch him. It was overwhelming to see how his demeanor changed and how he was trying to make some type of movement by himself as a result of the pet therapy program.”

The program also has been uplifting for staff members, according to Ortiz. “Even for the associates, the 1 minute that we stop and pet Rusty can relieve some stress and help us relax. It’s like bringing a little bit of home to the hospital.”

Because of its success in the telemetry unit, the hospital’s geriatric unit also plans to institute the program in May. “You have nurses coming in and out of patient rooms, and physicians coming in and out. When the pets come in, it’s a positive, overwhelming experience because no longer at that moment are patients in the hospital setting,” Ortiz says. “For 15 minutes, the pet therapy program lets them be in a different setting. There are no words to describe how important that can be for patients.”

For more information about UMC El Paso’s pet visitation program, please contact:

Veronica Ortiz, RN
Cardiovascular Services Nurse Manager
University Medical Center of El Paso
VOrtiz@umcelpaso.org
915-521-7120

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