• Crystal Martinez

Benefits of pet therapy dogs

According to the Therapeutic Research Center, pet therapy uses the support of an animal to help care for or reduce symptoms of a condition. Animals are chosen to be used for pet therapy for their friendliness, capability to interact in a non-threatening way, and give companionship. Pet therapy aims to improve “physical, social, emotional, and mental function.” It is also used to help with feelings of isolation. Pet therapy might work by diverting patients from pain and triggering comforting thoughts. They have to pass difficult tests for obedience, have to be clean, and have to be good with people. The therapy is used with people of all ages, particularly with children and the elderly. Pet therapy does not have any interactions with medications or foods, and are safe as long as the person is not allergic to them. The following research shows pet therapy is a proven beneficial method of providing care and reducing symptoms of kids with cancer and troops with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Photo courtesy of Flikr user Marvin Kuo.

According to Jonel Aleccia, writer for NBC News, the best medicine for kids with cancer is pet therapy. The American Humane Association, with grants from Zoetis and the Pfizer Foundation, is doing the first clinical trial of the effects of pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Amy McCullough, AHA’s national director of humane research and therapy says the goal is to discover the physical and psychological effects of animal therapy on the child patient, families, caregivers and the therapy dogs. Researchers created a randomized, controlled trial that will monitor 100 children who are newly diagnosed with cancer, including 50 that get targeted visits from therapy dogs, and 50 who will get standard treatment. Five children’s hospitals have approved to take part in the year-long study of kids ages three to twelve who get regular chemotherapy in outpatient clinics. McCullough said the study will record, “blood pressure, heart rate and psychological responses in the kids, their families and the caregivers.” It will also examine the results on the dogs, measuring the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the animals’ saliva before and after visits. Dr. ZoAnn Dreyer, a pediatric cancer expert at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, said the results of the study, expected in a year to fifteen months will be welcomed. Dreyer stated, “A clinical trial that will no doubt be beneficial to the kids gives a lot more credence for hospitals around the country to use it.”

Pet therapy is also being used for is for returning troops dealing with postwar stress. According to Patricia Kime, writer for Military Times, new research at Purdue University is being done to discover whether therapy dogs can alleviate PTSD. Marguerite O'Haire, an assistant professor of human-animal interaction at the school's College of Veterinary Medicine, is conducting a study of 100 post-9/11 veterans to see if the pet therapy helps veterans with PTSD influences, medical symptoms, social anxiety, relationships, etc. Stave Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute Foundation (HABRI), said the outcome of a Veterans Affairs study could steer the department toward policy changes. Feldman stated the VA's current restrictions on service animals said they would only fund the troops with “a physical disability but not for mental disabilities because they said there wasn't enough scientific evidence that shows animals help with PTSD.”

O-Haire is also working with K9s For Warriors non-profit organization. O'Haire will run a series of tests on the veterans: fifty who already have dogs and fifty on the organization's fourteen-month wait list. This will examine the changes in medication, stress levels (measured as stress hormone cortisol in the saliva), relationships, overall function and quality of life. K9s For Warriors Executive Director Rory Diamond said 92 percent of the organization's graduates report that they are willing to decrease their medications or stop taking them within six months of graduating from the three-week dog pairing course.

Dogs trained to aid people with PTSD learn a range of tasks. This includes standing in front of or behind them to steer away crowds or approaching people, waking a person from a nightmare, or "sweeping" a room for other people before a handler enters. Diamond hopes the Purdue study will confirm his studies of the K9s For Warriors program, and that pairing PTSD dogs with former troops creates happier, healthier vets.

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