Developing an animal-assisted support program for healthcare employees

Bella Etingen, Rachael N. Martinez, Bridget M. Smith, Timothy P. Hogan, Laura Miller, Karen L. Saban, Dawn Irvin, Becky Jankowski, Frances M. Weaver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Background: Employee burnout and its associated consequences is a significant problem in the healthcare workforce. Workplace animal therapy programs offer a potential strategy for improving employee well-being; however, research on animal therapy programs for healthcare workers is lacking. This study aimed to evaluate the feasibility, acceptability and preliminary impact of an animal-assisted support program to improve healthcare employee well-being. Methods: In this mixed-methods pilot intervention study, we implemented an animal-assisted support program in a multidisciplinary healthcare clinic at a large VA hospital. The program included 20 sessions over 3 months, each approximately 1-h long. Real-time mood data were collected from participants immediately before and after each session. Participation rates were tracked in real time and self-reported at follow-up. Data on burnout and employee perceptions of the program were collected upon completion via a survey and semi-structured interviews. Differences in mood and burnout pre/post program participation were assessed with t-tests. Results: Participation was high; about 51% of clinic employees (n = 39) participated in any given session, averaging participation in 9/20 sessions. Mood (on a scale of 1 = worst to 5 = best mood) significantly improved from immediately before employees interacted with therapy dogs (M = 2.9) to immediately after (M = 4.5) (p = 0.000). Employees reported significantly lower levels of patient-related burnout (e.g., how much exhaustion at work relates to interaction with patients) after (M = 18.0 vs. before, M = 40.0) participating (p = 0.002). Qualitative findings suggested that employees were highly satisfied with the program, noticed an improved clinic atmosphere, and experienced a reduction in stress and boost in mood. Conclusions: Establishing an animal-assisted support program for employees in a busy healthcare clinic is feasible and acceptable. Our pilot data suggest that animal-assisted programs could be a means to boost mood and decrease facets of burnout among healthcare employees.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number714
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 3 2020


  • Animal therapy
  • Employee burnout
  • Employee wellness
  • Healthcare workers
  • Organizational behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy


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