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Pet Therapy Brings Healing Power of Pets to Ochsner Patients

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It’s well-known that interactions with a gentle, friendly pet can have significant health benefits. Numerous studies have shown that animals have the ability to promote healing, reduce stress, and lower blood pressure. For years, the New Orleans Visiting Pet Program (VPP) has brought animal-assisted therapy to Ochsner Medical Center, providing a welcome distraction for patients and staff alike.

The Visiting Pet Program started 24 years ago with a grant from the Louisiana SPCA. However, when the grant ran out, the volunteers didn't, and they continued the program by bringing their own pets to people who needed a dose of kindness.

With their motto of “bringing love and leaving smiles”, these owners and their animal therapists include a variety of mix-breed and pedigreed dogs and cats, as well as guinea pigs and rabbits. All animals are temperament-tested during Pet/Handler evaluation held twice a year, as well as given an annual health check by a veterinarian.

Ochsner heart transplant patient Emily Sanchez is one of the many individuals whose time in the hospital was impacted by the VPP visits. Admitted to Ochsner in 2012 for heart failure, Emily was promptly placed on heart transplant list.

“Those visits really kept me going,” she says. “I was so glad that Ochsner offered this to the patients. It brightens your day - I was in the hospital for three months straight, but I would always look forward to Friday when the dogs would visit.”

Emily received her heart transplant in 2014, and is currently a sophomore in college. Pet Therapy Program volunteer Fay Schultz was one of the visitors whose pets provided a bright spot during Emily’s extended stay.

“In my visits to the Cardiac Care Unit, I have encountered many patients, but Emily was a very special one.”

When the two met, Emily had been in the hospital for months awaiting her transplant. “At times it was very stressful for her and her mom, as she was only 18 at the time,” Schultz explained. “She bonded in a special way with my dogs, JJ, Mozart and Betty Boop. She has told me on many occasions how much the dog visits meant to her. Her mom enjoyed them too.”

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However, the patients are not the only ones who benefit. The Ochsner staff also looks forward to the weekly visits. “In the midst of a 12-hour shift full of machines and bells and rushing around, seeing such sweet and gentle puppy faces provides a welcomed and much-needed break,” says Jamie McKenna, a Cardiac Nurse. “It makes me so relaxed and happy! We really appreciate what the dogs and the volunteers do.”