Monday, October 2, 2017

Learning about our patients via their pets

- Jennifer Middleton, MD, MPH

A Close-up on Pet Therapy in the October 1 issue of AFP shares one patient's benefit from caring for her dog through the challenges of an abusive relationship and subsequent homelessness. The patient's family physician helped her find low-cost veterinary care and allowed the dog to accompany the patient to visits; the patient's appreciation of these acts is clear in her narrative. Asking about pets as part of the social history can not only provide family physicians with important information about our patients' personal health but may also help us develop meaningful wellness strategies with patients that incorporate their pets.

Pet ownership correlates with several health benefits; pets can provide meaningful social support, encourage regular physical activity, and possibly even improve cardiovascular health. Pets may help children develop compassion and enjoy a higher quality of life. Similar to the Close-up mentioned above, the homeless youth who own pets report that they help them to not only feel safe but also help to attenuate loneliness.

Knowing about our patients' pets may help us understand their health better, but we can also incorporate our patients' pets into treatment plans for mental health conditions and cardiovascular disease. Regular time with pets can increase anxious individuals' willingness to engage with themselves and others in treatment. Creating an exercise routine that involves a pet may appeal to some patients. Discussing the risk to pets of second-hand tobacco smoke may motivate some patients to quit.

We can also work with our veterinary colleagues to ensure that pet ownership is healthy for pets and humans alike. This 2016 AFP editorial about the One Health initiative describes this partnership between veterinary and human medicine to reduce the prevalence of zoonotic infections such as rabies, ringworm, and toxoplasmosis. Here's a link to AFP articles that include the keyword Animal-Related Diseases if you'd like to read more.

Encouraging our patients who don't have pets to consider obtaining one, however, may be ill-advised; it's likely beyond our scope to investigate whether patients have the resources and ability to care adequately for a pet. If we feel interacting with animals might benefit a patient without a pet, we could suggest opportunities to interact with animals such as volunteering at a shelter or caring for a friend or family member's pet. Animal-assisted therapy may also be available in your community; this Curbside Consultation from 2016 describes animal-assisted therapy and its benefits in more detail.

What have you learned about your patients by asking about their pets? Have you incorporated patients' pets into their wellness strategies?