When most people hear about animals in a hospital setting, the natural reaction is one of shock and disbelief. But based on significant research in recent years, many within the medical community are recognizing the importance of pet therapy as an important venue for assisting patients of all ages and varying conditions.
Pet therapy, has been a treatment modality at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center for several years, and Shaare Zedek is among one of the few Israeli hospital to pioneer and champion this approach. The hospital recently hosted a day long symposium organized in cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, dedicated to exploring the role of pets in medical care.
Most people when hearing about pets in a hospital express concern over hygiene and the risks for the spread of disease from animals. But Professor Yechiel Schlesinger, Director of the Department of Pediatrics at Shaare Zedek and an expert in infectious diseases is a strong proponent of the program. Speaking to the symposium, Professor Schlesinger stressed that only animals known to be hygienically safe to work with are integrated into the program and every precaution is taken to promote the patient’s safety.
Recent research has found that pets can have a directly positive impact on both the physical and emotional health of a patient. In one study, patients in a vegetative state were shown to have increased cognitive functioning when exposed to animals. Researchers have also shown that pets can also be used to remove emotional barriers between patients and their family members by using the animals as a therapeutic form to remove fears associated with disease.
Dr. Yoni Yehuda, who works as a medical clown with a focus on animals and is recognized as a local expert in his field lectured at the session saying, “Pets are a way of diverting some of the trauma away from the illness or injury of the patient and in so doing can play an important part in the therapeutic process.”
Shaare Zedek maintains a collection of small animals in the pet therapy program within the Lincoln David Abraham Paediatric Educational Institute which includes gerbils, rabbits and even a lizard. On occasion, “outside support” is brought in, including one occasion in which a goat joined the program – although she provided her therapeutic services in the hospital’s garden without entering any actual medical departments.
Chemda Didovski, who runs the pet therapy program at Shaare Zedek said the goal is to provide patients, most of whom are children, with the ability to deal with their illnesses in various ways. “Just like we offer children toys and books to cope with their illness, we know that animals can have an additionally positive effect. The goal is to help our patients in any way possible and that is what stands at the center of this program.”
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