Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2019: Shiny Happy People

Dogs and cats and miniature ponies, oh my! Meet the therapy pets

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 17 December 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6771
  1. Matthew Limb, freelance journalist
  1. London, UK
  1. limb{at}

Animal assisted interventions in healthcare settings take all sorts, finds Matthew Limb

Therapy pets are in demand these days—and not just at Christmas. Staff may be in short supply but animals seem to be increasingly popping up in caring roles in hospitals and other settings.

Dogs are the most common therapy pet. Owners or handlers and their dogs are usually approved by a recognised organisation for so called “animal assisted interventions.” Pets as Therapy and Therapet are two prominent visiting programmes in the UK.

Sometimes people just need a cuddle

Pets as Therapy has 6000 registered volunteers with their “behaviourally assessed” animals—overwhelmingly dogs. Candice Hughes, a New Yorker and retired foreign correspondent living in London, signed up with her bouncy, affable Australian labradoodle named Broadway. They passed the charity’s assessments for suitability, temperament, and handling control and work “as a team” at the Royal Free Hospital. They regularly spend time with patients with dementia and on acute kidney care and some general wards.

“If patients can, we take a walk up and down the hallway,” says Hughes, who loves to hear their stories. Visits can be emotionally charged and produce tender moments. “There is something about a dog. Sometimes people just need a cuddle or a break in their routine,” she says.

Children often warm to dogs in hospital, especially if anxious before undergoing treatment, scans, or physiotherapy, says Suzy Emsden, a consultant paediatric intensivist. She takes her “laid back and emotionally intelligent” pug, Alfie, to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital and other facilities. He will do what’s needed—sit quietly being stroked or submit to being dressed up or ferried around on a toy tractor. Children who have raged against doing their physiotherapy suddenly mobilise to take him for …

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