A Boy in Pediatric Intensive Care, A Dog Named Cali, & Lots of Evidence-based Info on Animal-Assisted Therapy

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[ed. note: Originally entitled:  Tails from the PICU, the following story is written by Terri Moss and reprinted with permission. The names have been changed to protect patient privacy]

We entered the room with some trepidation. The large, beefy boy filled the bed and as my eyes traveled from his toes to his chest, he looked like one lug of a kid who really shouldn’t be sleeping in the middle of such a beautiful day. But as my eyes continued their upward gaze, his image changed: a white ribbed tube protruded from his throat and a large white square of gauze was affixed to the side of his shaved head, like a jauntily-placed beret, only there was nothing playful about this farm boy’s face. It was expressionless. A thin crescent of white showed between slightly parted eyelids where his eyes were most certainly rolled up in his head.

Nurses surrounded him, carefully monitoring his every breath through the trache, that is, until we distracted them by our entrance into the private PICU room. “Oh, Kevin will be so glad you’re here! He loves animals!” exclaimed one nurse, clearly knowing her patient and grateful for the distraction we were creating.

jpeg-1I looked down at my 60 lb, 2-year old pup, Cali, and we shared a reassuring glance. Cali is a most unlikely therapy pet: a German Shepherd, Rottweiler and mystery mix of a mutt, snatched from the jaws of death from a high-kill shelter. We rescued her at four months of age when I spotted her on a rescue website and her raccoon eyes and plaintiff look grabbed my attention and my heart.

We quickly assessed the logistics presented by the situation and in moments, a chair was placed next to Kevin’s bed while other nurses quickly called in Kevin’s mom and sister. Placing a clean white sheet on the chair, with one snap of my fingers, Cali jumped and quickly settled on the chair, seating herself in front of the monitors, as close to Kevin’s bed as she could manage. Instantly, those white crescent slits shifted to brown as Kevin took immediate notice of this dog sitting next to him. He slowly swung his arm toward Cali, his meaty hand reaching out to her. Without any command on my part, Cali raised her paw and Kevin grabbed it and there they were: holding one another, paw in hand. jpeg

Time froze. Kevin’s mom and sister appeared, cameras clicking. Nurses stopped talking. We watched as Cali stood guard over Kevin like an old trusted friend. I hadn’t taught her to do this. None of it. Getting on furniture at home isn’t allowed. She rarely sits still, much less puts out her paw for strangers. It just happened, like so many visits between therapy dogs and patients. The healing is wordless, timeless, intuitive and very real.

“We live on a ranch,” said Kevin’s mom, breaking the silence of the moment. “Kevin loves animals. We have a lot of them at home.” For just this moment, we were able to bring a little bit of “home” to Kevin in the hospital and in his time of need.

Animal-assisted therapy, as it’s called, is a burgeoning field and a rapidly growing practice in hospitals nationally. Studies show that animal assisted interventions result in a significant improvement in blood pressure, heart rate and salivary immunoglobulin-A levels, which is a marker for immune system health. Animal assisted therapy is particularly beneficial for cancer patients, reducing anxiety and stress, which allows the body to expend more energy on physical recovery.

In the November 2007 issue of “Anticancer Research,” Dr. Massimo Orlandi and associates found that animal-assisted therapy was significantly beneficial in reducing depression in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Furthermore, it is well documented that patients receiving pet therapy require as much as 50% less pain medication, as animal visits help the body release its own natural painkillers. In psychiatric patients, pet therapy reduces the severity of depression and anxiety, and improves patients’ outlook on life and self esteem. And, “walking” dogs down a hallway and throwing balls improve a patient’s mobility and range of motion.

Terri has been a Therapy Pet volunteer at hospitals for over 15 years. She speaks to groups about her animal assisted therapy experiences, sometimes with special assistance from her therapy pet dogs.

She consults with hospitals on implementing and improving the therapeutic value of their pet therapy programs.  Learn more or contact Terri: 925-377-5288 and terri@mosscommunications.net

Stories like Kevin’s are happening every day. Some more remarkable than others, but the impact that therapy pets has on patients, their families and on staff is undeniable, memorable, and truly uplifting for us all.


Michele Morrison, MS, RN, of William Paterson University of New Jersey, “Complementary Health Practice Review” January 2007
Vlasses, Francis, Ph.D., RN, and associates at Loyola University
ScienceDaily, November 2009 article
Horowitz, Sala. “Animal-Assisted Therapy for Inpatients.” Alternative and Complementary Therapies (Dec. 2010): n. page. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 30 May 2011.
Johnson, RA. “Animal-Assisted Activity among Patients with Cancer.” Oncology Nursing Forum (2008): n. page. CINAHL Plus with Full Text. Web. 30 May 2011.
Rossetti, Jeanette, and Camille King. “Use of Animal-Assisted Therapy with Psychiatric Patients.” Journal of Psychological Nursing (2010): n. page. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 30 May 2011.

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2 Responses to A Boy in Pediatric Intensive Care, A Dog Named Cali, & Lots of Evidence-based Info on Animal-Assisted Therapy

  1. Pingback: Spreading some good news about compassion, mindfulness, & equestrians

  2. Beth Boynton, RN, MS says:

    Terri, thanks so much for your story and resources. This is a super example of the combination of the art and science of healing and hopefully will encourage more. You describe some very profound moments that may be hard to quantify but we KNOW are helping, “The healing is wordless, timeless, intuitive and very real.”

    Elizabeth Scala’s ‘Art of Nursing’ is designed to help bring balance into the work we do in case readers are interested: http://bit.ly/1kqV9l3

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