Here’s what happened when a dental office added a support dog to the team

By Emily Hulse, MS, RD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published March 15, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Research indicates that pets reduce depression and may provide additional social and psychological health benefits.

  • Some medical providers use pets to calm patient nerves—and many of these providers find that office pets have benefits for both patients and staff.

  • If you do incorporate pets in the office, be sure to bring a trained therapy pet instead of a family pet who may not be best suited for a working environment.

Animal-assisted therapy, or use of animals for medical purposes, is not a radically new concept. First explored in the 1800s by nurse Florence Nightangale, she noticed that using pets in psychiatric settings reduced anxiety for both pediatric and adult patients.[]

Today, animals are used in a variety of different medical settings outside of psychiatry alone, and research continues to support the benefits. But what are the risks, and how can you successfully integrate pets into your office?

A dentist’s take

Dr. Campbell and Dr. Vanna at Mighty Smiles Dentistry have recently added their emotional support dog, Frankie, to the team. As far as Frankie’s role, Dr. Campbell explains, “It really helps calm the kids down having a fun little puppy running around. They no longer focus on the scary parts of what to expect and they become more focused on the ‘fun’ aspect of the dental office.” 

Additionally, Dr. Campbell reports that the patients aren’t the only ones who benefit from an emotional support dog—the staff loves their furry friend, too. She further says, “We have a lot of moving parts, a lot of personalities, and having Frankie there gives you the chance to take a step back and refocus.”

"We have a lot of moving parts, a lot of personalities, and having Frankie there gives you the chance to take a step back and refocus."

Dr. Campbell, Mighty Smiles Dentistry

It may be unconventional, but even in a dental setting, pets are starting to show benefits for patients and providers alike.

Research-supported benefits

Researchers have explored the benefits of animals in multiple medical settings, and most studies continue to support the mental health benefits they provide. For example, a 2021 study analyzed mental health markers among pet owners and non-pet owners. Researchers found that pet owners showed lower scores of depression and higher scores of adequate social support.[] 

Another recent study measured patient stress levels before surgery by segmenting those who either received a visit from a trained therapy dog, held a stuffed dog toy, or did not see a therapeutic visitor at all.

Similarly to other findings, this study concluded that patients who received a visit from a therapy dog scored much lower levels of anxiety before surgery.

Even patients who simply held a stuffed animal dog felt calmer, reinforcing the influence that animals may have on our stress and mood.[]

Potential pitfalls

While pets may make us happier, they may not always suit a medical setting, and it’s up to you to understand the benefits and risks of animal-assisted therapy in action. 

Not everyone enjoys the presence of an animal, and a therapy pet in the office may be a turn off for some potential patients. Furthermore, patients may have severe allergies to dog or cat saliva or fur. In this scenario, a pet is not only just a nuisance but a real medical problem that could affect patients’ health. Even those who have had adverse reactions to pets, such as bites or attacks, may find increased anxiety around even a perfectly trained and well-behaved therapy pet.

As a provider, it’s imperative to recognize your patient population and determine if a pet makes sense. While it can be beneficial to include animal-assisted therapy, it’s not fool-proof.

Additionally, a pet in the office requires support through a handler or team of staff that watch and care for the pet appropriately. Pets require bathroom breaks, food, water, and to stay active, all of which is important to keep in mind when determining if a pet is right in your medical practice.  

For some medical offices, an animal in the office is simply not feasible. If you are interested in incorporating a furry friend, consider the benefits and risks of doing so with your patient population. 

Successfully integrating office pets

If you’re interested in incorporating an animal in your medical practice, there are a few considerations to take to ensure success. 

Initially, consider the risks of animals in your practice, as well as the patient population at hand. Once you’ve determined that a pet can provide more benefit than harm, you’ll need to choose the right pet for the job.

Family dogs or cats may not suit your needs, and without proper training, accidents may be more likely to occur. While we may want to take our own dog to work, without training, it may not be the best choice.

According to the American Kennel Club, a trained therapy pet needs to pass the Canine Good Citizen test and other tests to then become fully certified. Specialized training and tests do help ensure that your pet, while not perfect, can handle large crowds, different personality types, and meet your needs in the medical practice.[]

Be sure to choose a certified therapy dog and communicate all needs for your pet with staff to make the transition to an animal-friendly environment safe and positive all around.

What this means for you

Animals in the office may reduce patient anxiety and create positive patient outcomes. However, there are risks for staff members and patients, making it imperative to incorporate a well-trained animal that can meet your needs. An animal may be a unique solution to meet the needs of your patients and create a positive medical environment.

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