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Pets on prescription
by Nick Mays

PATIENTS IN hospital should be offered ‘pets on prescription’ to speed their recovery and aid their mental well being, a health psychologist told nurses last week. Dr June McNicholas said that hospitals should encourage bedside visits from pets and trained visiting animals, and should have reception areas where patients and animals can meet.

She said that animal therapy should be included in national guidelines for hospital treatment and that the benefits of pets to patients’ well-being was ignored by most hospitals amid exaggerated fears of poor hygiene and litigation that might result.

Dr McNicholas told the Royal College of Nursing annual Congress in Harrogate: "Pet visiting rooms should be acceptable in hospitals wherever they can be fitted in, and where possible pets should be allowed on to the beds.

"I know this is going to raise huge cries of the risks, but to be perfectly honest people are more likely to catch infections from their human visitors. It is not like we put every person through a sheep dip when they come into hospitals."

Studies have shown that the presence of pets can reduce blood pressure and stress levels, modify aggressive or withdrawn behaviour and make people more willing to talk about their problems.

Pets have also been found to act as a cushion against fluctuations in human support from healthcare workers and family members. "Intuitively we all know that everyone loves their pets, but it can be dismissed as a sentimentality," said Dr McNicholas, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick.

Her research has shown that nine out of ten patients suffering from breast cancer were found to gain valuable support from pets. A recent American study found that men who owned cats and dogs had lower blood pressure, while children who grew up with animals were thought to build an enhanced resistance to asthma and eczema.

Dr McNicholas said that at present most doctors and nurses would not consider asking patients if they wished to see their own pet or whether they might benefit from an animal visit. She said that supporters of animal therapy did not wish to see hospitals turned into menageries, but simply to have the treatment acknowledged as a "very viable option".

A few residential homes and hospitals, such as Great Ormond Street, allow animal visits, which are normally restricted to trained animals, usually dogs, on therapy schemes, ostensibly the PAT Dogs programme. Benefits have been derived from petting cats and rabbits. Ferrets have helped the visually impaired and parrots have aided oral communication. "Every hospital should not have pets bounding around all over the place, but it is about making healthcare officials aware that animals can be an extremely positive addition to treatment," said Dr McNicholas.

Animals have been found to help people to adapt to the death of a spouse, alleviating symptoms of depression and stress. The use of reptiles and amphibians is thought to be less advantageous as they are too antisocial.