Pets can prompt reflection about what it means to be human. This may strengthen our connections with patients and improve care.
It’s the end of my second 26-hour shift in one weekend and my bones ache with every step. Memories from overnight flash through my mind—the endless beeping of my pager; sweat dripping down my face during a code blue; the heat of a patient’s fever under my hand. It’s a video reel that I can’t shut off.
I finally make it home. A warm bed and a cup of tea are within reach. My key turns in the lock and the door swings open to reveal two terrified little eyes. In that moment, the chaos of last night fades away. I’m pulled back to the present, where a tiny living creature needs my attention.
Until COVD-19, I was never a “pet person.” I didn’t have pets as a child and felt too busy during my medical education to care for another beating heart. But like many of my peers, as the pandemic hit, I found myself suddenly disconnected from my social circles. When one of my internal medicine co-residents fostered a litter of stray kittens, I decided to fill the hole in my life with a grey furball. I named her Rosie. Caring for a stray kitten was out of my comfort zone and it challenged me in unpredictable ways. It also helped me become a better physician.
Here are 4 takeaways from my kitten adoption journey:
1. Life reanimates life.
Before adopting Rosie, I would come home after a long day of work, watch something on Netflix, and go to bed exhausted. Now, I come home and watch Rosie explore her world with playful curiosity and I feel energized. A similar effect has been found in nursing home residents. In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande discusses “Eden Alternative” homes, where healthcare professionals brought in plants, animals, and young children to interact with older adults in long-term care. The results were incredible—less agitation, decreased prescription use, and reduced mortality. While it may not be feasible to bring a pet into a hospital ward, consider asking family members to bring a small plant for their loved one’s room.
2. Touch builds connection.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with Rosie—the first time she purred herself to sleep in my lap. Physical distancing has deprived people of human touch and strict hospital visitor policies make patients especially vulnerable. My experiences with Rosie have reminded me to use appropriate and mindful touch with my patients. Simply holding someone’s hand in a brief daily visit can make a difference.
3. In caregiving, there are no small tasks.
As Rosie’s adoptive mother, I’ve waited anxiously for the vet to call back with her lab results and agonized about her litter box schedule. I worry about whether she prefers salmon over tuna and if she’s gaining weight at a healthy pace. Each time one of these “small” concerns crosses my mind, I reflect on how much more overwhelming it must feel to care for a family member. As a result, I take the time to answer each and every question from my patients’ loved ones because I know how high-stakes every choice feels.
4. The best patient care happens in a growth mindset.
No matter how much time and effort I invest in kitten-proofing, Rosie is always a step ahead of me. I find her chewing on the forgotten phone cord or scratching at the one corner of unprotected furniture. As a result, I’m in a constant cycle of learning from mistakes and growing as her caregiver. By bringing that perspective to my clinical practice, it’s easier to embrace imperfection and adapt. For example, if I prescribe a medication and it doesn’t have the desired effect, I approach the process as a shared journey with my patient towards improvement of their symptoms.
More than anything, Rosie has taught me that every experience in my life can teach me about patient care. Perhaps you can learn from something unexpected in your life, too.