All wards need to:
- Ask patients about their pets – who is looking after them, what contact they’d like to have if possible etc. (98% of people surveyed recently by medicanimal.com said their pet was a member of their family.)
- Have conversations with patients about their pets and encourage them, where appropriate, to have photos in their bedrooms and perhaps a ward Animal Gallery on a wall, with pictures of patients’ pets, staff pets, local wildlife etc.
- Have an animals policy
- Wherever possible, enable patients to have leave, escorted if necessary, to visit their pets.
- Have a list (which is easy for staff and patients to find!) of local animal organisations including vets, rescue centres, Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Centre etc.
- Include consideration of people’s pets when patients are using or planning an Advance Statement.
Some people avoid going into hospital because they have a pet to care for. They may even go missing to go home because they are concerned about their pets.
- My partner bought my dog in everyday and we would walk in the hospital grounds, this gave me a feeling of normality.
- There is something about the rhythm of stroking my dog when he comes to visit that just makes me breathe better and feel lighter.
- I made my dog a collar in the ward workshop. I achieved something and had something tangible that I felt proud of.
- The ward lets my husband bring the dogs to ward garden’s fence and I and other patients stroke them.
- All patients are asked about their pets and the pet’s welfare on admission.
- Care planning includes discussion about their pets
- Family and carers are encouraged to bring pet into hospital grounds or into the ward visiting room so that patient can still have contact with them.
Pets when patients return home
Care planning needs to consider how a patient might be able to look after a pet when they’re back home, including the possibility of getting a new or additional pet. For some patients, getting a pet can be a magical, transformative experience, while for others it can be too expensive and demanding. This article describes it well: Having a pet is not a miracle cure for mental illness. Owning a pet is beneficial and comforting only for those who love and appreciate domestic animals. If you’re simply not a “pet person,” pet ownership is not going to provide you with any therapeutic benefits or improve your life.
The list of factors for wards to consider about getting a pet also apply to individual patients. Here’s a quick checklist of things to consider:
- What joys could a pet bring?
- Which pet?
- Dogs in particular are time-consuming and must be walked every single day, through rain, snow, holidays… All pets will need feeding, having their living space cleaned, wounds attended, dog poo picked up and many other unglamorous tasks! And most will simply need time and attention for their emotional well-being, just like us humans. Puppy training is time consuming and essential. A home without toileting mishaps is a happier home!
- Cost – food, vets bills, insurance are the big ones
- Space – whether for a hamster cage or a dog bed
- Puppies are notorious chewers and aren’t too bothered about the difference between a nice Bonio and your slippers. Dogs barking is, understandably, very annoying for neighbours – and usually resolvable but it could involve the cost and time of involving a dog behavioural expert.
- We animal lovers angst about our cats being run over, our dogs being roughed up by other dogs etc.
- Pets have agonisingly short lives compared to humans and the loss of an adored pet can be devastating. There are several pet bereavement support services, including Blue Cross. This website has a great range of resources and comfort, but because it’s American, some of the support sources won’t be relevant.
- Health issues such as allergies – not just for the individual but also for others sharing their home or lives.
- Fellow dog-walkers. Mainly this is one of the biggest benefits of having, or walking, a dog and a surprise for most newcomers. There is a strong and very lovely culture in the UK of dog walkers at least acknowledging each other, and most walks with Buddy involve at least a quick chat with other dog walkers. (The TV presenter Ben Fogle met his wife when they were single and walking their dogs!) But the sociability can be daunting for some people.
Getting a pet should never be a rushed or impulsive decision (hence the long-lived slogan ‘A dog isn’t just for Christmas’) and people should think carefully, work out the logistics and definitely speak to people who have the sort of pet (even the particular breed) that might be considered.
Local animal charities can be very helpful and informative. For example, the Dogs Trust does great stuff including:
- Helping homeless people find dog friendly hostels
- Practical help to encourage hostels to take dogs
- Paying vets fees for homeless people’s dogs
- Arranging foster care for dogs so women can leave abusive partners
- Taking the lead – training for young offenders in looking after their dog.
And the PDSA Vet Care scheme helps people on low incomes with costs.
Alternatives to having a pet when back home
Just like there are alternatives to wards having their own pets while still enabling patients to have contact with and conversations about animals, so there are all sorts of ways we can be with animals without living with them full-time and permanently.
- Dog walking. Could be a neighbour’s dog (elderly neighbours might particularly appreciate this), one from a rescue centre – or even a new career!
- Similarly, many neighbours or friends would appreciate help in caring for their pet, especially looking after the pet when the humans are on holiday or working long days. Dog-sitting (at your home or the dog’s) is considerably less demanding than dog-walking. Not just the exercise bit! But there are much fewer risks – eg from other dogs.
- Borrow my Doggy is a brilliant idea for sharing a dog without the full responsibility of having one live with you all the time. It’s a great website, matching dog ‘owners’ with local ‘borrowers’ for walks, sitting and holiday care.
- Fostering – this can be a very good way of discovering if having a dog or cat is for you. The Dogs Trust has a fostering scheme to enable people to leave abusive partners. Local rescue centres often need short-term foster carers while their animals are waiting for a forever home.
- Training assistance dogs. Charities which train dogs to support people with various disabilities (best known of course are guide dogs for blind people) need people to have the puppy live with them for some months so that they gain the basics of being socialised, helpful and loveable.
- A trial period. Most animal rescue centres allow, indeed want, people to see how things go and if it doesn’t work out, they will take back the animal.
- Local opportunities – whether it’s city farms, seaside aquariums, animal rescue centres, safari parks, zoos….
- Helping at a local puppy training class or seeing if there are volunteering opportunities with or via the local vet.
- Wildlife!! It’s always out there, it’s free, there’s no responsibilities and we can simply enjoy watching the birds, foxes, rabbits (not enjoyable if they’re in the same space at the same time!) and other wonderful UK wildlife. Could be in a garden, local park or in a special wildlife reserve, and it could be for just a few minutes or people could get very involved with the care and preservation of the wildlife.
- Non-contact contact! For many of us, looking at YouTube videos, Facebook, books from the library, or more actively fundraising or campaigning are all very satisfying and can fit in with our mental health and other life fluctuations.