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Stanford Report, August 27, 1997

Pet-therapy project launched in geriatric psych

Pet-therapy project launched
in geriatric psych unit


A hospital psychiatric unit seems an unlikely place for pets. Patients there suffer from a variety of difficult, and sometimes emotionally isolating, behavioral disturbances. Some are schizophrenic; others have episodes of aggression, paranoia, severe depression or withdrawal.

But nearly all respond to the unconditional love and companionship of dogs.

Every other Friday, four dogs and their handlers visit Stanford Hospital's geriatric psychiatry unit through a new program called PAWS, or Pet-Assisted Wellness at Stanford. Francie Souza, PAWS program coordinator and senior patient representative in the Office of Community and Patient Relations, began developing the venture about a year ago at the suggestion of other staff members who had noticed the uplifting effects of animal companionship on patients' spirits.

To help set up the program, Souza turned to B.J. Grosvenor, a recreation therapist on the hospital's skilled nursing unit, who had seen the benefits of this therapy at Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System. With the support of Grosvenor and Colette Case, who had started a similar program four years ago as director of recreation therapy at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, PAWS sponsored its first pet visit this past March. Although the Stanford program currently operates only on the geriatric psychiatry unit, Souza said she hopes to expand it to other units.

The purpose of the program, explains Souza, is "to provide an opportunity for people in difficult circumstances, in physical and emotional crisis, to benefit from the healing presence of animals" ­ in this case, well-trained dogs that meet strict health and safety standards.

It's all about making hospitalization more pleasant, explained Grosvenor. PAWS complements the massage therapy, art therapy and music programs already developed by the Office of Community and Patient Relations, she said.

"Pets help normalize the environment," said Case, who oversees the twice-monthly evening visit of dogs, cats and rabbits to a playroom at Packard Children's Hospital. "Animals are so nonjudgmental. They are just there. They just love you."

Regarded as a casual recreational activity only a decade ago, animal-assisted therapy is today a respected therapeutic intervention. Holding, petting and simple grooming tasks can enhance motor skills lost through injury, disease or the aging process, said Dianna Harrison, a recreation therapist on Stanford's skilled nursing unit. In addition, pet interaction decreases anxiety levels, increases self-esteem and reduces blood pressure, she said.

Studies elsewhere have shown that patients rely on less pain medication when animals are around, noted Case. She and Souza believe pet-assisted therapy is particularly good for psychiatry patients, motivating them to socialize and interact.

"Hospitals can seem like sterile and lonely places. When animals are in the hospital, the atmosphere is more like that associated with home," both for patients and for staff members, Souza said.

Interactions with animals help put people back in touch with the caring, loving parts of themselves, said Grosvenor. Patients who spend much of their time feeling anxious and asocial tend to relax and interact when animals come to visit. Grosvenor has observed that the patients are much more likely to cooperate with others, ask relevant questions and tell stories about their own experiences with animals and their lives in general ­ all factors that mitigate loneliness and enhance the healing process, she said.

PAWS visits are supervised by the occupational therapy staff associated with the hospital unit sponsoring the animal therapy. The new program is a cooperative venture between Stanford Health Services and the Peninsula Pet-Assisted Therapy Team (PPATT), a local group that is part of a national organization called Therapy Dogs Inc. All animals are chosen carefully and screened according to the health and safety procedures established by PPATT and Therapy Dogs Inc., Souza said. Each animal then receives extensive behavioral testing and further health screenings before going on the hospital visits.

Patients also are carefully screened. Therapists pay particularly close attention to allergies, fears and cultural differences related to pet ownership and animal care, said Grosvenor.

Though PAWS does not need additional dogs at this time, the Office of Community and Patient Relations (723-7167) can add interested owners to a waiting list or refer them to groups that may have an immediate need, Souza said. SR