Allowing people's own pets to visit is a logical extension, Fricke said.

"It certainly makes sense, given what we know about the intense bond people and pets have, and the overall health benefits people experience when they have pets," she said. "Even if you're just a little under the weather, having that wet nose nuzzling under your arm makes you feel better."

A small number of other Maryland hospitals, health care centers and hospices are now allowing pets. Northwest Hospital and Shore Health System, which includes Dorchester General Hospital and the Memorial Hospital at Easton, encourage pet visits.

Levindale has been allowing animals to visit and live there since 2000. There are now five cats, birds and fish living there, and 10 to 15 animals visit.

Brad Friedman, who brought Larissa, along with his son Ethan and mother Sheila, planned to return with the dog to visit other patients after his father's release. "It's a break from the routine," he said as Larissa went around the room to greet everyone.

Sheila Friedman said the dog will sit at her husband's feet and keep him company at home.

Other hospitals say they recognize the bond patients have with pets. Sheppard Pratt, a mental health facility, organizes pet visits mostly for children and geriatric patients. And Kennedy Krieger Institute, which treats children with brain disorders, has arranged for long-term inpatients to visit with their pets outside the center.

Gilchrist Hospice Care has allowed pets since it opened in 1996, according to Reggie Bodnar, Gilchrist's clinical director. Bodnar and others had visited other hospices and discovered a black Labrador retriever living in one in Ohio.

A dog owner herself, Bodnar wanted one at Gilchrist to "put the finishing touch on the homelike environment," but caring for the animal full time seemed too challenging. So patients' pets were allowed to visit instead.

"If allowing someone to see a pet will bring joy, of course we want to do that," Bodnar said. "They bring a sense of calm and normalcy and unconditional love."

Bodnar said the animals seem to know what the patients need, and they tend to elicit smiles from everyone they pass in the hallway. The Harris dogs did that for Sean, his mother said.

"You could tell they really lifted [Sean's] spirits, and the spirits of the whole family and the staff," said Debbie Harris, who visited daily and arranged for the dogs to get the required veterinarian visits and baths before bringing them from their home northeast of Frederick.

Sean battled many complications during his months in the hospital and 11/2 years of rehabilitation. But the dogs, whom he calls D and Scruff, as well as another family dog and cat, all treat him with the same adoration they did before the accident. Wilson wants to sit on his lap and Diesel wants his ears scratched. The cat won't even move out of the way when Sean moves his electric wheelchair around.

Sean recently bought a house for himself and plans to resume everyday activities, which include hunting and college classes. Once he's settled in his new home, he'll expect visits from his two- and four-legged family members, though Diesel is now pushing 10 and battling his own health problems.

Sean will now be the one comforting him.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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