HCA Healthcare unleashes the healing power of animals

healthcare professional and young girl smiling with golden retriever

Service animals across HCA Healthcare make a positive impact on our patients, families and colleagues every single day.

These remarkable four-legged “healers” provide companionship, inspire confidence and perform tasks to assist people with disabilities. Service animal programs can help those with medical conditions such as seizure disorders, blindness, hearing impairments, mobility issues and diabetes. Therapy animals also provide companionship to those in need, such as wounded warriors suffering from PTSD.

Take a look at some of the animals across HCA Healthcare that are helping to boost healing and enhance care: 

Facility dogs at affiliate Methodist Children’s Hospital in San Antonio, Texas provide special support for young patients.

Girl sitting up in hospital bed while petting two golden retrievers
Young girl smiling while laying in hospital bed with golden retriever

For over 20 years, affiliate Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina has touched patients and members of the community through their pet therapy program: Paws on a Mission. In 2018, Paws on a Mission provided more than 26,000 visits to patients, visitors and colleagues. 

Three women in casual clothes sitting in a yard with three dogs
Two women in casual clothes petting a dog with harness that says "THERAPY DOG Daisy"

Affiliate Wesley Healthcare in Wichita, Kansas provides pet therapy to their pediatric in-patient unit. Each dog has their own trading card with the dog’s picture and a few fun facts for patients to collect. Twice a month a mini horse named Merlin visits the pediatric floor bringing smiles and a few tricks, such as playing on a keyboard.  

Three women stand with four dogs indoors
Woman squats down next to mini horse in hallway
Child in stroller smiles at mini horse with harness that says "MERLIN"

But did you know that pets can help lift just about anyone’s spirits?

Pet parents feel pretty strongly about the benefits their animals offer. In a survey of pet owners conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Cohen Research Group, 74% of respondents reported mental health improvements related to pet ownership, and 75% reported improvements in a friend or family member’s mental health.

“Having an animal that loves you unconditionally really fulfills a need that all people have,” says Christopher Rogers, MD, a psychiatrist and Medical Director of Child & Adolescent Services at affiliate Medical Center of Aurora in Colorado.

“Having a pet also provides purpose,” adds Dr. Rogers. “Knowing that not only do you get love from the pet, but that the pet relies on you—it gives you a real sense of importance.”

Pets can help people with mental health conditions

For many people, being close to a furry friend can offer therapeutic benefits. In fact, research suggests that bonding with a pet may increase levels of oxytocin, a “feel good” hormone, in the body. Pet ownership has also been shown to have a positive impact on those with certain conditions.

Depression: Having a pet can help people with depression and anxiety combat feelings of loneliness and social isolation. “When someone is depressed or anxious, it’s really hard to get out there and socialize, and the more someone isolates themselves, the more one feels unimportant and has a harder time not isolating themselves,” explains Rogers. “But you don’t really get to ignore a pet. They demand your attention, which can help break that cycle.”

The social benefits of pet ownership can be especially helpful for seniors. “These people don’t have as many social contacts, so the ability to form a relationship with a pet is incredibly beneficial,” adds Rogers.

What’s more, having a dog means you need to take them out for regular walks, which helps you get exercise. Exercise, in turn, helps boost levels of endorphins—another type of “feel good” hormone that may help reduce the symptoms of depression.

ADHD: Pet ownership can help teach children who have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) about responsibility. Caring for a pet requires time management, planning, structure and scheduling—whether it’s feeding them at certain times each day, taking them out for regular walks, or bathing them. “It gives people with ADHD a certain regimented, scripted pattern,” says Rogers. “Working with a pet can help them transition those skills to other aspects of their lives.”

Having a pet can also teach empathy—something children with ADHD often struggle with—as well as lower kids’ stress levels, calm them down, and provide an outlet for excess energy. “If you have a 7-year-old with boundless energy, it can help to get a pet—like an Australian Cattle dog—that can run your kid ragged,” says Rogers. “That can be beneficial to both the child’s and parent’s mental health.”

Just remember that getting a pet should always be a family project. Children younger than age 10 are unlikely to be able to care for a dog or cat on their own, and even older children will need a parent’s guidance and modeling to learn proper care. A parent may need to step in if a child falls behind in their duties.

Autism: Research shows that children who have autism can develop strong bonds with family pets and benefit from the unconditional love and companionship pets provide. What’s more, having a pet helps promote social skills in children with autism. It may even help improve sensory issues.

Of course, choosing a pet for your child with autism requires care. Pets have personalities, too, so it’s important to find the right match. A large dog that barks a lot, for example, may not be a good fit for a child who is sensitive to noise.

“I’m also a huge fan of equine therapy,” adds Rogers, of the benefits of interacting with horses in a controlled setting. “There’s something really magical when kids who have autism work with these wise, intelligent, peaceful animals. It teaches social reciprocity and promotes an emotional connection with the animal that can hopefully be transferred to other relationships in their lives.”

Alzheimer’s disease: For people who have Alzheimer’s disease, interacting with a pet can help reduce associated symptoms like anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, and loneliness. Exposure to pets can also help draw these people out and help them become more interactive, while reducing behavioral issues.

It’s worth noting, however, that for people with Alzheimer’s specifically, there’s a difference between owning a pet and having access to one. “Bringing therapy dogs or emotional support animals into assisted living facilities and giving people with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia access to empathetic, caring animals is very beneficial,” says Rogers.

When it comes to owning a pet, it’s important to create a plan to make sure the pets’ needs are taken care of as the individual’s illness progresses, Rogers adds. Memory issues associated with Alzheimer’s, for example, may necessitate that a caregiver step in to handle responsibilities like feeding the pet and maintaining grooming and veterinary care.

What to consider before you bring a pet home

Be sure you’re up for the challenge before you take on pet ownership. “Owning a pet is hard work and stressful sometimes, and it could be detrimental if you’re not really prepared to care for an animal,” says Rogers. “Don’t make an impulsive decision. It’s important to do your research before you bring a pet home.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that prospective pet owners ask themselves some key questions, including:

  • How long will the animal live and how large will it grow?
  • How much will veterinary care and food cost?
  • How much room does the animal need to be happy and healthy?
  • Do I have the time, energy and stamina required to care for the pet?

Take the time to find the right fit for you and your family. “Be sure to pick an animal that suits your temperament,” says Rogers. “A Chihuahua is a good match if you want to put it in your purse and take it everywhere you go, which can be reassuring for someone with a social anxiety disorder. But you don’t want to take a Newfoundland to the cafe.”

Once you find the right pet for you, developing that relationship can be a very positive, rewarding experience, says Rogers. “I tell people all the time that if I could put the feeling one gets from owning a dog or cat or another loving animal into a pill, I would prescribe it all the time.”

Business man poses with seven golden retrievers
In early August of 2019, affiliate Del Sol Medical Center received 11 victims of the El Paso, Texas shooting. Pet therapy group K-9 Comfort Dogs visited the hospital to provide support to colleagues and a community in need. (Pictured) David Shimp, chief executive officer of Del Sol Medical Center, pets comfort dog, Martha.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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