Ask patients in some area hospitals which caregivers they most look forward to seeing, and they'll say the ones with hairy faces and bad breath.
For Sean Harris, they were his dogs Diesel and Wilson. For Michael Friedman, it was the family pooch, Larissa.
"My mother and grandfather had been [at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center & Hospital] before and we brought the dog to visit, so when my father got sick, we knew we could bring her," Brad Friedman said of Larissa, a friendly 5-year-old Australian shepherd. "She just cheers him up."
Michael Friedman saw Larissa at least a half-dozen times while rehabilitating for a few weeks recently at Levindale after a car accident. Harris was visited by his dogs while recovering from a car accident at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for five months ending in 2010.
The two Baltimore hospitals and a small number of other Maryland health care facilities have joined others around the nation that now allow pet visits as a means of improving patients' moods and possibly their health.
Studies show that having a pet around can lower blood pressure, promote relaxation and alleviate loneliness, and people suffer when they are away from them for long periods. In groundbreaking research published in 1980 in the journal Public Health Reports, a professor in the University of Maryland's psychiatry department, James J. Lynch, and his colleagues showed that patients recently released from the coronary care unit lived longer when they had pets at home.
No one had to show the research to the Harris family. Sean, now 26, suffered a spinal injury when the car he was riding in crashed. He had been hospitalized for about 21/2 months before a nurse noticed the pictures by his bed of three family dogs and a cat. She suggested they visit.
Debbie Harris immediately settled on Diesel, a 120-pound blue mastiff the family had rescued several years earlier, because her son was closest to him.
She said the large gray animal, bathed and dressed in his own scrubs, was escorted through a back elevator to Sean's room. The dog didn't seem to mind the ventilator or other tubes he was hooked up to, or that Sean couldn't talk and wouldn't completely remember the visit the next day.
The staff put Diesel on a gurney and raised him to Sean's level. The dog placed his chin on Sean's arm, Harris' mother said. Sean prompted the dog by pursing his lips and Diesel began to "sing."
"It was a big help," Sean said recently from his family home. His pets "still are. They keep me company."
Visits by Diesel and Wilson, a Maltese-Shih Tzu mix, were made possible by the Rev. Susan Carole Roy, director of pastoral care services at the University of Maryland Medical Center, which includes Shock Trauma, and founder of the pet visitation program. Roy knows about the connections people develop with their pets because she has two dogs and a cat, Luther, who was rescued from the side of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Baltimore.
The pet program was launched in 2008 after two years of research and policy development.
It all started when Roy noticed a patient feeding a dog on the sidewalk in front of the medical center. It turned out to be her pet; the woman had been hospitalized so long that the dog had stopped eating, and a friend started bringing it to the hospital. Roy began looking for examples of large hospitals that allowed pets, and found the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and Minnesota's Mayo Clinic.
The policies generally called for a patient's doctor and infection control staff to sign off. The pets needed up-to-date vaccines, a bath, scrubs and an escort.
At Maryland, the patients receiving pet visits tend to be the sickest, Roy said. One woman who had fallen from a horse decided to terminate her life support, and the staff got her dog in within three hours. Recently, one dog was allowed to attend a meeting where doctors had to tell a patient's husband that she was going to die; the dog's presence helped calm him.
"They know how to see us through everything — marriage, kids being born, divorces, illnesses and death — and they're a huge part of our emotional and spiritual well-being," Roy said. "When pets come here, it seems like they give every ounce they have."
Anyone who has a pet would expect that, said Inga Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States.
She said hospitals and other health care facilities have long had pet therapy programs, where animals are brought in to offer comfort to patients. A study last year by the American Hospital Association shows that such programs are now the most common alternative medicine offerings available to patients, ahead of massage and art and music therapy.
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.