Big worry for folks heading to the hospital: Who will care for my pet?

October 18, 2021

Many people fear checking into hospitals, for any of a number of reasons, from loss of control to claustrophobia, to fear of blood or germs, to qualms about doctors and medical professionals, to phobias about needles or fear of death.

But Dr. Tiffany Braley, a neurologist at University of Michigan Health/Michigan Medicine, in Ann Arbor who works with patients who have experienced strokes and other serious health conditions, says she has noticed a different, compelling motivation among patients who resist being admitted to or staying in the hospital: They just want to get home, because they have no one to care for their beloved pets, U.S. News reports.

“I was pretty struck by the experience. I realized at that point that I was discovering what I thought was likely an unrecognized need among the hospitalized patients,” said Braley,

“I knew there wasn’t a lot of information on this topic. So, I reached out to several colleagues here at Michigan Medicine from social work and from nursing who also love animals. They confirmed that, in general, hospital systems really don’t have formalized plans in place to assess pet care needs or to help provide assistance with pet care for patients who are in a hospital,” she said.

“I learned very quickly that it’s usually social work who’s called upon to handle this task, if they find out sometime during a hospitalization that a patient needs help with pet care, but often they’re not brought in to help until late in the hospital course. And, at that point, they usually don’t have many resources to offer patients,” Braley noted.

Working through their office of patient experience, Michigan Medicine researched the issue, reaching out to approximately 1,300 “patient advisors,” a network of former patients and family members who had previously offered to share experiences.

The team got responses from 113 people, 63% of whom said they had experienced difficulty when figuring out pet care during their own hospitalizations or the hospitalizations of a loved one.

About 33% said their decision or the decision of someone they knew about whether to stay in the hospital as recommended by the medical team was impacted by their pet care needs.

And about 16% of respondents said they knew someone who had left the hospital against medical advice to care for their pets.

“The overwhelming majority also really saw value in developing better systems, including foster care programs, maybe partnerships with foster care programs, to help address this need for patients who are hospitalized,” Braley told U.S. News.

It’s not an issue for everyone. Some patients do have family, friends or neighbors who quickly step in to care for a pet when someone is hospitalized, but for some patients their primary social network is their pet.

“We don’t know, are they at home without food? Are they all by themselves? Are they at risk while their owners are in the hospital?” Braley said.

Possible solutions, in addition to the first step of asking patients about their pets early in their care, could be creating partnerships between hospital systems and community pet care services, whether those are humane societies or other foster programs.

“We’ve been in preliminary discussions already with the Michigan Humane Society, [which] is very eager to help become a potential partner and scale up resources as necessary in order to address this need,” Braley said.

Michigan Humane Society already does some work through its compassionate foster care program offering foster care for pets that are  in situations similar to what Braley has described, said Matt Pepper, CEO and president of the Humane Society.

“The health care system obviously needs to recognize and be asking people when they’re scheduling critical treatments or for any type of hospitalization, ‘Do you have a pet and do you need help with your pet?’ And then it’s incumbent upon organizations like us to work collectively with them to create those solutions,” Pepper said.

The Humane Society’s program isn’t a huge network of foster homes, Pepper said, but could support several families who need pet care while seeking medical treatment.

“The other part of that is I think that we need to do a better job of not only making the healthcare system aware of this, but make the community aware that this is an opportunity for people to help and step in,” Pepper said. “The more awareness we bring to it, it elevates another opportunity for the community to get involved in not only helping animal welfare and the pets that are involved, but in helping their neighbors and … fellow residents of their communities.”

 Research contact: @usnews

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