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For Pets in Recovery at NC State, Small Stuffed Animals Make a Big Difference

ICU stuffies
Patient Luna cuddles with a donated stuffed animal while recovering in the NC State Veterinary Hospital's ICU. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

The intensive care unit houses many of the NC State Veterinary Hospital’s most fragile patients. Lately, it has felt a little bit more like home for them.  

There’s a husky napping peacefully on a giant purple rabbit and a Pomeranian lying between a seal and a teddy bear with a scarf. There are stuffed animals everywhere, acting as soft friends for pets that have been through so much. They’re reminders of the warmth, security and happiness they’re used to at their own homes. 

After the clinicians at the NC State Veterinary Hospital provide life-saving care, these stuffed animals provide comfort.

“Even if it’s a small tail wag … that small gesture makes me feel like they want to fight harder,” says Christina Benson, a medical support technician at the hospital. “My heart explodes when I see how something so simple as a stuffed animal brings them so much happiness.”

Since late last year, hundreds of stuffed animals have been donated to the hospital by veterinary technicians, hospital staff, CVM students and community members. They fill a void created by COVID-19 restrictions. 

Before the pandemic, pet owners have often left a little bit of home with their pets — usually a toy or blanket — when they are admitted for care. The hospital has not been able to accept such outside personal belongings as a safety precaution during the pandemic.

It all started when former veterinary technician Mindi James noticed the lack of home comfort when walking through the ICU one day. James donated four large stuffed animals that once belonged to her two sons, found while cleaning out their closets. 

The following week, James brought some more. Soon, the news of the stuffed animal donations spread across campus. Students collected stuffed animals to donate and other veterinary technicians and clinicians urged friends and neighbors to give what they could.

“Even if it’s a small tail wag … that small gesture makes me feel like they want to fight harder.” 

Since then, most of the pets recovering in the ICU, which has never closed since the pandemic began, have been given stuffed animals to cuddle, to sleep with, to prop their heads on. The stuffed animals are thoroughly washed and some are misted with calming spray.

“Lots of our canine patients are scared in a hospital or any unfamiliar setting,” says James. “Anything we can do to try to make their area seem more like their home environment, I believe the happier their hospital experience will be.

“I’ve seen dogs taking some of the best naps with their heads draped on the larger stuffies I donated.” 

It’s the companion animals in the ICU that need these stuffed animals the most. The ICU cares for pets following major abdominal surgeries. Many have respiratory issues that require oxygen. Some have serious heart conditions or need dialysis to rid their bodies of toxins.

Sometimes a stuffed animal is picked for them. If they are well enough to walk, the pet chooses.

Mia rests on her stuffed frog in the ICU. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine.

“My favorite part is bringing a dog over to the bin with the stuffed animals and letting them pick,” says Heather Sidari, a veterinary technician who oversees the ICU. “They’ll stick their nose in and root around and they always find one. Oh my goodness, it’s my favorite thing ever.”

Sidari’s office is now filled with stuffed animals, and she has received so many that donations are no longer accepted. Sidari helps clean them in the washer and dryer across from her office. Many of the stuffed animals were collected by Benson, who reached out to her community about the need and has filled a dozen bags with them for the hospital.   

“Offering these toys gives me hope that they are happier here while recovering,” says Benson. “It has been such a joy to give these animals something to love.”

For Sidari, the stuffed animals reflect the importance of boosting a patient’s physical wellbeing by supporting their emotional wellbeing. She says the stuffed animals have also provided comfort to the many veterinary technicians who work hour after hour, day after day in the ICU. The heart and soul they put into patient care is not something pet owners often get to see. 

“This is what we’re here for,” says Sidari. “We’re here to care for them, to get them back to their homes. These stuffed animals have made a huge difference in our ability to emotionally support the pets.”

And that emotional support doesn’t stop when pets leave the ICU. Smoke, a pit bull puppy who garnered national attention for suffering life-threatening stab wounds, was recently brought to the veterinary hospital for surgery. While recovering in the ICU, Smoke clung to a large stuffed giraffe. 

And he stayed close to his giraffe until the moment he left for his new home.

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine

To support compassionate care for companion animals at the NC State Veterinary Hospital, consider supporting our areas of greatest need, including the All Gifts Great and Small Fund.