New pet therapy lifts spirits of children in the hospital

Vet who started program has shown effectiveness of pet therapy
New pet therapy lifts spirits of children in the hospital

A UW veterinarian who has pioneered pet therapy has now started a new program that is raising the spirits of pediatric patients at American Family Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Linda Sullivan was part of the very first class at UW-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She helped start Dog Jog, a walk/run with your dog fundraiser to benefit shelter animals back in 1984. She also played an instrumental role in bringing Puppy Up here in 2014. It raises awareness and money in the field of comparative oncology – identifying the links between canine and human cancer.

Since Linda specializes in infectious diseases, like cancer, it just made sense. She says many people don’t realize there are many similarities between animal and human cancers, and there are several research projects going on that hold the answers to how we can fight cancer.

These are answers Linda would like to have as she fights ovarian cancer herself.

“And you know it sounds so trite but I don’t care, cancer touches everyone. Everybody knows somebody, or has lived with somebody who’s had family members, be it human or our furry family members, and it’s not going away unless we put up a very big fight,” says Linda.

Fighting is what she has continued to do over the last six years, with a dog named Niles Newton by her side. She knows the impact a dog could make while fighting for better health.

That’s the idea behind Pet Pals, a pet therapy program Linda and the UW Vet School helped make a reality. It’s not about raising money or awareness. It’s about raising the spirits of pediatric patients at American Family Children’s Hospital.

According to Linda, “The dogs don’t care if the kids have lost their hair, if they have scars, if they’re not feeling well, if they’re bandaged, if other people might think they look kind of goofy. The dogs are just non-judgmental.”

The program works. Kids smile and laugh. The benefits also extend to the parents,who get a well-deserved break from the high stress situation of caring for a sick child in the hospital.

Pet Pals was able to scientifically prove the benefits of pet therapy. A first-of-its-kind study was done to prove the effectiveness such as a decrease in blood pressure, a rise in self-esteem and purpose, and faster healing.

Since 1996, more than 140 dogs have gone through Pet Pals, and countless numbers of children have forgotten, for even a moment, that they’re sick.

Linda said her pathway to where she’s gotten to today has been a long and winding road.

But it’s a journey she certainly hasn’t traveled alone.