The Royal College of Nursing is calling for better and more consistent access to animals for all patients who can benefit.
It said most nurses supported the use of animal therapy to benefit patients across a range of healthcare challenges, including mental health, learning disabilities and public health.
“Animals can help to boost a patient’s mood in many ways”
Nine out of 10 nurses believe animals can improve the health of patients with depression and other mental health problems, suggests a survey by the Royal College of Nursing.
The RCN survey also found that more than 80% of respondents thought animals could improve communication difficulties such as for people with autism.
In addition, 82% said that animals – dogs in particular – encouraged patients to be more physically active, while nearly 60% said just the presence of animals seemed to speed physical recovery.
Nearly half of the 750 nursing staff surveyed had worked with animals in their career, from dogs and cats to ponies and chipmunks, and of those 98% said it benefitted the patient.
A nurse who works with outpatients said: “I worked with a young man with learning difficulties who found it hard to socialise. He found confidence in talking to other people about his dog. This was a big step for him.”
Meanwhile, a palliative care nurse added: “We have a resident cat and he brings much peace and serenity to our patients. He calms patients down, they talk to him, and he gives them comfort.”
According to the RCN, around 90% of survey respondents thought patients should have access to animals in order to experience the benefits on offer.
However, almost a quarter of survey respondents said no animals were allowed where they worked. A further 32% said only service animals such as guide dogs were allowed.
The most common reason for animals to be prohibited was the risk of infection – 57%. However, with protocols in place this can be easily managed, said the college.
Amanda Cheesley, the RCN’s professional lead for long-term conditions and end of care, said: “I’ve seen patients with animals in hospitals and in their homes – the difference it makes is remarkable.”
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Drawing on her personal experience, she added: “I used to take my Great Dane with me when I was a district nurse and he could put a smile on any patients’ face.”
“A positive mental outlook often makes all the difference in health care and animals can help to boost a patient’s mood in many ways,” noted Ms Cheesley.
She said: “They provide companionship, help patients to regain their independence and provide a kind of support that people often can’t.
“Unfortunately there are still major barriers,” she said. “A lack of training for both staff and the animals themselves often limits how many patients can have this kind of therapy, whilst concerns over infection can keep patients apart from their beloved pets.
“The RCN is calling for better, more consistent access to animals for all patients who can benefit, as the evidence is clear that as well as bringing joyful moments to people when they are unwell, the clinical benefits are tangible,” said Ms Cheesley.
“Health services need fully trained animals and handlers that can ensure the care of both animals and patients,” she said. “Animals can really help to relieve suffering and bring happiness into patients’ lives, but services need to adapt to make this possible for all.”
The survey of 771 RCN members took place in December 2016.
In November 2014, the national media publicised the story of a dying pensioner who was been granted her last wish by having her beloved horse visit her in hospital (see main picture, above).
Sheila Marsh, 77, died hours after saying goodbye to Bronwen at the Royal Albert Edward Infirmary in Wigan. Staff wheeled her out on her bed into the hospital car park, where the horse was waiting.