Health:Pet therapy: unconditionally good for you?

Harry Truman, when elected President of the U.S., was well aware of the potential hazards of his job. He famously remarked, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Truman was a good judge of character and knew a dog would always provide him with unconditional loyalty, regardless of cutthroat politics in Washington. But if dogs are suitable companions for Presidents, are they also good for the rest of us?

A recent report from the Mayo Clinic asks, “Is medicine going to the dogs?” The answer is “Yes, but in a good way.” Hospitals and doctors are increasingly aware that dogs bring joy and rehabilitation to patients with a variety of health problems. There are more than a dozen registered therapy dogs and handlers at the Mayo Clinic’s Caring Canines program. They make regular visits to some patients as part of their medical therapy and offer special visits on request to others.

Aging, with the loss of loved family and friends, can be depressing and lonely. The onset of illness and impersonal hospital settings can make days of looking at four walls seem like an eternity. A visit from a dog can bring sunshine into a patient’s life and do more good than the pharmaceutical drugs being prescribed by medical staff.

Animal assisted therapy makes sense in many circumstances – for instance, with the elderly in long-term care facilities, patients suffering from dementia, or those receiving cancer treatment or fighting anxiety. In fact, few patients say no to a dog wagging its tail at their hospital door.

But some patients and their families may wonder whether there are health risks when dogs enter a hospital room. The Mayo Clinic and other hospitals using pet therapy insist on strict regulations ensuring dogs are clean and healthy.

But patients must also realize they too must follow sound hygiene, whether in hospital or on other occasions. I recall one occasion of concern when at a friend’s home for dinner. He patted his dog, ran his hands down the dog’s tail and then picked up ice cubes for my drink. And Fido may have pooped, just before my rum and coke!

Years ago I wrote about what I considered another sound way to help older patients at Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto. At that time a pub allowed veterans one alcoholic drink at noon and another before dinner. I spent several hours witnessing how effective it was in the treatment of depression and loneliness for long-term patients.

A friendly server was part of the therapy. I watched one welcome a veteran in a wheelchair who had lost both legs saying, “Charlie do you want your usual drink?” I’m confident the moderate consumption of alcohol offered healthy benefits. But another advantage was the camaraderie and alternative to a stark hospital room for a period of time.

I also remember the shock from surgical nurses when I allowed my post-operative patients an alcoholic drink on their third recuperative day. It reassured them that they were on the way to recovery. If I’d had access to therapy dogs, I would have encouraged their participation in the recovery process.

I’ve advocated that patient-focused pubs in hospitals would do more good than most of the medicines prescribed, particularly for long-term patients. A policy that supports a bedside drink is a start, but there is no comparison to the social benefits of a cozy pub.

The same is true of Fido or any other well-trained animal. Pet therapy offers a pleasant distraction and an elevation of happiness that can be remarkably healing. I’m partial to dogs. A dog offers unconditional love, which is precisely what so many patients need.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones can be reached at

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