Highly trained animals supporting palliative care patients

Central Adelaide Local Health Network (CALHN) is working with highly trained animals to support the wellbeing of end-of-life patients, as part of its hospital-based palliative care service.

Pet therapy, also known as animal assisted therapy, encompasses a range of activities and programs which aim to improve an individual’s overall health and wellbeing through regular interaction with an animal.

CALHN Inpatient Palliative Care Nurse Unit Manager, Sue McArdle, says animals registered with South Australia’s Therapeutic Dog Services Inc organisation have been visiting end-of-life patients at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital-based unit since 2015.

“We provide care for patients with a life-limiting illness,” Sue says.

“Some may be admitted for treatments and complex symptom management and then return home, while others remain for their end-of-life care.

“Given these circumstances, some patients can engage with the therapy dog and others cannot, however family members keeping vigil often welcome a visit as a comfort as well.

“Pet therapy has been clinically proven to improve the wellbeing of our patients and certainly our experience shows us it positively benefits individuals who choose to participate in the visits.

“Our patients are in a hospital setting, which can sometimes be unsettling and often they are missing their own pets. A visit from a therapy dog can brighten their day and it’s beneficial for families to have that interaction too. They really do make a difference.”

Sue says the unit’s most frequent visitor is a Cairn terrier, Neo and his handler Kerry, who would usually visit each fortnight.

“Kerry will have a chat to the patient before she introduces Neo, and always double checks if they want to have a visit with him,” she says.

“You can really see the patient’s face light up when they spend time with him.”

“The dog is intuitive and responsive to the patient and can adapt to the needs of each individual and their circumstance, for example, he will be quiet and very docile if that is what is appropriate for that person.

“He is very well-trained, obviously enjoys human contact and is content to be petted by unfamiliar people and Kerry keeps a watchful eye on both Neo and the interaction.”

Neo’s visits are also a highlight for the service’s multi-disciplinary team, comprised of nurses, medical staff, social workers, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists.

“Obviously, Neo is a regular visitor, so it is like another member of the team,” she says.

“Everyone greets Neo, and he enjoys it too, his tail starts wagging as he obviously recognises the staff.”

The unit also facilitates visits from the patient’s own animals in an outside setting.

“For some patients, their pets mean the world to them – it’s like having a member of their family visiting,” Sue says.

“It’s also good for the pet to be able to visit their human too.”

Sue says pet therapy delivers benefits beyond the actual visit.

“It’s the anticipation ahead of the visit, the joy they experience during the visit and then it becomes something they reflect on and talk about afterwards.”

While CALHN welcomes pet therapy animals, the animals and their handlers must be registered with a pet therapy organisation that CALHN has an agreement with.

This registration ensures that the pet therapy animal, and their handler are fully trained to work in a hospital setting, with the animal undertaking special veterinary checks to ensure they meet high infection control standards.