Pet Therapy

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS (15:15): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Health and Wellbeing a question regarding patient wellbeing in hospitals.

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS: Members of the council are well aware of my strong interest and efforts to improve the mental health and wellbeing of all South Australians, and I am very supportive of programs that can make a positive impact on people's lives, especially for those people in hospital facing enormous personal challenges. Will the minister update the council on programs to support patient wellbeing in hospitals?

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing) (15:16): I thank the honourable member for his question and for his ongoing support of mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes in health the focus can be on headline projects, but it is often the small changes that can make a big difference in individual lives. The pet therapy project at Mount Gambier is a good example. Pets have a wonderful ability to brighten our lives. They offer companionship and unconditional love, and increasingly we see the benefits that pets can bring to therapeutic environments.

Guide dogs and other assistance animals have long been a vital part of the lives of many South Australians, assisting people who are blind, vision impaired, deaf, hearing impaired or deafblind. The pet therapy program within the health service brings smiles to the faces of patients—people often going through what can be quite traumatic experiences, whether it is a regular series of chemotherapy doses, whether it is recovery from operations, and especially for those who might be facing a long-term decline, even in the palliative phase.

The wagging tail of a dog can certainly lift a person's mood, reduce stress and help brighten people's days. It is also not only the patients who benefit; it often provides relief to staff who work in often high-pressure environments and challenging contexts. Certainly an important message conveyed by the South Australian Mental Health Commission, and reinforced at two Mindframe events organised by the commission earlier this week, highlight the importance of us taking care of our own mental health. Programs that benefit patients and staff such as the pet therapy program are valuable in boosting the health and general wellbeing of everyone. Twelve dogs take part in this popular program and, along with eight handlers, they visit the hospital each week and do the rounds.

The feedback from patients has been very positive, with many noting the role of dogs in improving their spirits in what is otherwise often a monotonous and draining experience. I think it is important to highlight how important the handlers are. They are critical to the success of the program. Not only do they themselves provide a compassionate ear and someone to chat to, it also is obviously important for the management of the animals. All participating dogs are subject to strenuous checks to ensure they are capable of handling unusual noises, such as wheelchairs and trolleys, and also have a suitable temperament for a hospital environment.

I bring this to the attention of the council as a very positive program making a real difference to the lives of patients and staff. I have been fortunate to see firsthand the benefits of pet therapy in a number of contexts. I remember visiting a McLaren Vale hospital and seeing a dog being used there, and I think many members would be aware of Operation K9, which is a joint program provided by the Returned and Services League and the Royal Society for the Blind.

Operation K9 dogs are provided to veterans of the Australian Defence Force who have a diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder due to operational service. I was only speaking to a user of a K9 dog recently who was glowing in the almost intrinsic knowledge that the dog had acquired of his handler, or his owner, and what a difference it makes to his life. Pet therapy in many ways is simple, but in many ways the impact is profound.