Pooch Power: Therapy Dogs Bring Quick Relief in the ER
A day that includes a trip to the emergency room is probably a high-stress one, but man's best friend could help you cope, new research finds.
The study found a reduction in pain, anxiety and depression that ranged from 43% to 48% in patients who were treated with a visit from a trained therapy dog while in the emergency department.
"The main thing is we found that they helped reduce pain in a significant way, which is huge. We need to look further at this and the why," said study author Dr. Colleen Anne Dell, a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.
In this clinical trial, researchers measured patients' pain, anxiety, depression and well-being on an established 11-point scale and recorded blood pressure and heart rate before, immediately after and 20 minutes after a visit with a therapy dog at Royal University Hospital.
The visits averaged 10 minutes, during which the dog handler might chat about pets while the patient pets the dog.
Dell recalls one patient who explained his pain as feeling like his brain was on fire. He had high anxiety and depression. After the dog visit, the change was palpable, Dell said.
"You could feel all that high-stress energy had just dissipated and you see the person petting the dog and having a conversation with the handler," Dell said. "Sometimes they're having conversations. Sometimes they're not. Sometimes the dog is just snuggling up to them and they're getting that comfort from that animal."
About 80% of emergency department patients are experiencing pain while there, Dell said. Anxiety can make that worse.
Pain is complex and is both an emotional and sensory experience that is unique to each individual, Dell said. The dogs forge a connection with people in a way that's hard to explain. Part of it is that they're perceived to be nonjudgmental when humans often are not, Dell said.
The dogs are part of a care team at the emergency department. They're not there just for human welfare. It's a reciprocal relationship, Dell emphasized.
"Their welfare is always cared for, to make sure they are getting something out of these visits. And that's how these dogs are chosen. They just love, love, love people," Dell said.
The findings were published online March 9 in the journal PLOS ONE.
Dr. Torree McGowan works in an emergency department at St. Charles Medical Center in Oregon, and has also seen the value of having dogs in the ER.
"I think that it's really fun to start getting some data on things that seem really obvious to most of us, which is, for the most part, having an animal in a really stressful situation can help people relax and be more calm," McGowan said.
Children seem to respond especially well to the animals, she said.
At St. Charles, the program has animals stop in when possible. Larger hospitals may have more dogs to work with and have them on a regular schedule, McGowan said.
For every intervention they do, emergency room doctors are considering what the risks and benefits might be, she noted.
"Having a therapy dog stop by and interacting with a person takes their mind off that fear and that anxiety of waiting," McGowan said.
While drugs can have many side effects, with dogs, "having something that is so safe, like a visit from a dog, is really a nice opportunity to have in the emergency room because the risk is so small," McGowan said.
Both McGowan and Dell noted that protocols, including training and grooming, keep pet therapy visits safe and hygienic for patients.
Therapy programs would be a great place for hospitals to partner with community organizations, McGowan suggested.
"I think that it's just a wonderful opportunity to start looking at patients not just as this is a disease and how do we throw some medicine at it, but to try to bring a little bit of humanity back to how we take care of patients," McGowan said.
Dr. Erik Blutinger, an emergency physician at Mount Sinai Queens hospital in New York City, has seen first-hand that therapy dogs boost the mood of patients, though his hospital does not currently have a therapy dog program.
"I think their findings are potentially generalizable and it mirrors what I've seen in the clinical environment. I do think that well-being, depression, anxiety are all key areas that demand novel approaches to dealing with them because they are so multifaceted and deep within, and difficult to often treat with a clear-cut therapeutic," Blutinger said.
It's not clear what the underlying mechanisms are for how spending time with a dog can relieve a person's pain and anxiety. Blutinger said one possibility is that when something leads to satisfaction and enjoyment, it triggers a rising level of dopamine in the body. He suggests that might counteract the pain, as well as lower a person's blood pressure and heart rate.
"I think that this feeling of companionship is, I would argue, an inherently feel-good quality, just physiologically speaking. And so that also is what gets brought to the surface when patients come into contact with therapy dogs, for a range of reasons," Blutinger said. "But one may, I'm guessing, be related to the evolutionary concept of just feeling better in groups and feeling like if we can establish a connection with other species, that's a pretty powerful emotion."
The American Kennel Club has more on therapy dogs.
SOURCES: Colleen Anne Dell, PhD, Centennial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness, professor, department of sociology, University of Saskatchewan, and senior research associate, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, Saskatchewan; Torree McGowan, MD, emergency physician, St. Charles Medical Center, Bend, Ore.; Erik Blutinger, MD, emergency physician and assistant professor, Mount Sinai Queens, New York City; PLOS ONE, March 9, 2022, online