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Animals have a special role to play in hospice care, providing comfort and consolation to terminally ill patients during their last days. One social worker who has studied the dying experience of terminal cancer patients in a nursing home came to believe that therapy dogs and other animals can help patients work through their feelings of anxiety and despair, because the animals’ emotions don’t get in the way. Human caregivers, on the other hand, must deal with their own fears of death, and so may unconsciously discourage patients from expressing their sadness and pain. Dogs and other pets are recognized as extremely important to support patients who often feel isolated and rejected because of the nature of their illness. As an added benefit, therapy dogs have been reported to reduce stress and emotional exhaustion among caregivers who deal with such patients on a daily basis. These positive results override any potential risk of infection, especially if guidelines developed for infection control in long-term-care institutions are strictly followed. PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support), a San Francisco group providing support services for HIV patients, has published extensive guidelines for minimizing the health risks of contact between these especially vulnerable patients and pets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that there is no risk of the AIDS virus being transmitted to humans or other animals by pets. This is a specialized, difficult, but potentially rewarding type of work for therapy dogs and their owners.

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