Health Team

Pet visits cheer Duke Hospital patients

Posted December 24, 2008 12:13 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:11 p.m. EDT

— During the holidays, furry friends provide companionship and love for hospital-bound patients at Duke University Medical Center.

Gus, a shaggy golden retriever, surprises some people when he walks the sterilized hospital hallways. But the trained therapy dog reminds cancer patient Kin Olson of her pet.

"When you're here and you want to be at home, it kind of like gives you a piece of home," Olson said.

The Pets at Duke program allows patients to get a visit once a week from a canine friend, trained in how to share affection and show happiness.

Patients commonly warm up to Gus quickly, his owner, Jillian Simpson, said.

"Sometimes patients have just been quiet and haven't been talking to anybody, they'll talk to him more than anybody else," Simpson said. "They'll talk and open up to Gus."

The dogs have undergone six-week training sessions in animal-assisted therapy, and they wear red scarves announcing their certification as they go around Duke Hospital, accompanied by their owners.

Sickle-cell patient Latarsha Moseley said that pet visits let her feel some of the unconditional love she usually gets at home from her twin daughters.

"It relaxes you, kind of makes you take your mind off of what's really going on with you," said Moseley, who had been hospitalized with a blood infection for six weeks.

Providing attention and pleasurable stimulation, pet visits help reduce depression and anxiety in patients with serious illness, research shows. Patients exhibited lower blood pressure and heart rates.

A former patient, Doug Irby, so benefited from dog therapy that his friends sponsored a golf tournament and raised money to expand the program.

"For all the volunteers, we're thrilled to have more opportunities to be here. It's a wonderful experience," Simpson said.