A bundle of fluff when you're feeling ruff

August 15, 2023
A woman with a shoulder bag brings a large fluffy black and white dog to a boy who's in a hospital bed.
Pet therapy animals bring comfort to children and adults in the hospital. They can help lower blood pressure, pain levels and the feeling of loneliness. Photos courtesy of Pet Partners

A visit with a furry four-legged friend is a dream of many. The power of pet companionship extends above and beyond long walks, countless games of fetch and practicing fancy tricks. Behind that fuzzy face lies a powerful gift that can bring healing and happiness.

Basically, pets have way more of a PAWsitive impact on our health than we might have realized.

A large brown dog is petted by a group of young women wearing blue medical scrubs. 
Pet therapy animals aren't just for patients. They brighten the days of employees and students, too.

The MUSC therapy dogs leave many “paw-prints” all over campus, such as at the post-anesthesia care unit, imaging, infusion and soon at dental operatory areas. This past month, Pet Partners, one of the largest nonprofit organizations dedicated to bringing therapeutic benefits of animal-assisted interventions to health care settings, collaborated with MUSC to photograph a few of the therapy animal teams for its new digital campaign. With the assistance of willing patients and care team members, Pet Partners’ photos captured the essence of what these incredible canine therapists do every day.

Pet Partners provides multiple types of animal-assisted interventions aimed at improving patient health and wellness. Animal-assisted interventions fall under three categories: animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted education and animal-assisted activities, all of which are utilized by MUSC.

MUSC's relationship with Pet Partners began at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when the organization reached out to Cathy Bennett, MUSC’s Therapy Animal Program coordinator, and invited her on their Facebook Live program. During the interview, they came to a quick realization: The majority of health care institutions across the country were still not utilizing therapy animal programs due to continued visitation constraints resulting from the pandemic. Hospitals were reluctant to relaunch programs, even as the pandemic died down.

Woman in medical scrubs gets face to face with a fluffy dog. 
Face to face: Pet therapy animals are carefully screened to ensure they're calm and friendly.

Bennett on the other hand was several steps ahead; she, along with MUSC veterinarian Suzanne Craig, D.V.M., had already begun crafting a plan to relaunch the therapy animal program in a way that would ensure the safety of not only patients but the dogs’ health, too.

And with her relaunch, she noticed something special. “I remember I got off the elevator with my dog, Jaxson, and there was a nurse standing at the unit. When she turned and saw Jaxson, she made a little squeal and covered her mouth with her hands. She was elated. As we got closer, she got on her knees and just buried her head into his neck and cried. And I mean, she cried – like, it was a heavy cry,” said Bennett.

A black and gray dog wearing a jacket looks up. 
Pet therapy dogs know they have a job to do and their human partners say they love it.

This was the first time she could truly see the positive impact these animals brought to care team members since the height of the pandemic. “I’d always known there was a connection between the staff and therapy dogs,” said Bennett. But to see it in real time, right before her eyes, gave the therapy dog experience entirely new meaning – the positive effect these pups bring to MUSC is undeniably powerful. 

Pet Partners recognizes that therapy animals don’t just provide emotional comfort and support to patients but also to families, care team members and medical students. MUSC was honored by the invitation from them to show the true essence and purpose behind therapy animal work for the Pet Partners organization. 

Eighty-eight teams make up MUSC’s growing Therapy Animal Program, with eight additional teams in training. MUSC accepts therapy dogs certified by four different organizations, one being Pet Partners.

The impact of a furry friend can go a long way. According to the National Institutes of Health, pet interactions can “decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies,” it continued, “have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support and boost people’s moods.”             

Bennett explained why the Therapy Animal Program is important to her. She called the role she plays as its coordinator a dream job. “I don't have a job. I have a joy. Every day for me, it's just a joy to be able to come in and do this.” 

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