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Pet Tales

UPMC Passavant experiments with letting patients' own pets come to visit

Tuesday, February 09, 1999

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The 97-pound Akita had never been in a hospital before, but this was a dog on a ground-breaking mission, and he performed with dignity and aplomb.

    Prescription pals at AGH:

Letter from Karen Lansberry of Allegheny General Hospital


Heads turned as the well-behaved, powerfully built dog strutted recently through the halls of UPMC Passavant hospital in McCandless.

Specially trained therapy dogs have been visiting nursing homes and hospitals for decades. But Cody is "just a pet" who was visiting the mistress he had not seen for two weeks.

Peggy Ehrman of Ross is one of the first patients to benefit from the hospital's new program. UPMC officials are unaware of any other health care facilities that open their doors to patients' pets.

The first four-legged visitors were tiny - a Pomeranian, shih tzu and two Yorkshire terriers. The visits occurred in the sub-acute unit, where the average length of stay is nine days.

It's not hard to imagine the worst-case scenario - exuberant, untrained pets barking, running wildly through the halls and jumping up on the beds of frail patients.

"That hasn't happened," said Becky Horvath, the hospital's recreation therapist and a big fan of pet therapy.

Supporters of this therapy say it improves the physical and emotional health of hospital and nursing home patients, reducing depression, anxiety and stress.

Studies have documented that animal visits actually decrease blood pressure, decrease muscle rigidity and produce measurable improvements in cardiovascular functions.

  Peggy Ehrman visits with Cody, her son Gary's Akita at UPMC Passavant Hospital, where she was a patient. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

"I take the word of the pet owners, and that has worked fabulously so far," Horvath said. "Many have said they would love to see their pets, but couldn't expect them to behave well in this setting."

Ehrman, 77, who was hospitalized after suffering a slight stroke, was one of those apprehensive patients.

"I said, 'Oh no, I can't handle a dog in here.' But I did put Cody's picture on my bulletin board where I can see it every day."

Hospital staff admired the picture - and spoke to Gary Ehrman, the patient's son, who lives with his mother, Cody and a female Akita named Kita. He decided to surprise his mother.

The visit was a huge success.

Though Cody sleeps in Gary Ehrman's bed every night, he seemed to know that hospital beds are off-limits.

Cody wagged his tail, put his huge head on her lap and gazed into her eyes as she petted him. He obeyed Gary Ehrman's command to "give Gram a kiss" and "give paw."

Peggy Ehrman glowed with happiness.

Then Cody worked the room, greeting Ehrman's roommate. He ventured out into the hall three times to gently greet elderly patients in wheelchairs.

"He's not a certified therapy dog, "Gary Ehrman said, "but he thinks he is."

Doctors, nurses and other staff came to pet and admire Cody.

"One of the best things about pet therapy is the reaction of the staff," Horvath said. "They get very excited. It's therapeutic for them, too."

Gary Ehrman, who bought Cody seven years ago beamed like a proud papa. "I started socializing and training him when he was 3 months old. He has always been very good and very loving."

Many of Cody's admirers had never seen an Akita, a breed that originates in the northern mountains of Japan, where they were used to hunt bear, deer and wild boars. The official breed standard says they are "very affectionate with family members and friends" - and very protective of them.

"When I got the call that paramedics had taken mom to the hospital, I wondered how they ever got past the dogs," Gary Ehrman said. "Cody, especially, is very protective. But he sensed that the ambulance crew was not aggressive."

Visiting pets must have proof of up-to-date immunizations. They must be clean, well-groomed and free of ticks and fleas. They must be on leashes or in cages, and cannot enter food-service areas.

UPMC Passavant will monitor the program and may expand it to other areas of the hospital.

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