For decades, doctors have informally deployed therapy dogs — canines that are trained to provide emotional support to people in hospitals, care homes, and other settings — as part of their patients’ health plans. But despite their longstanding clinical use, there’s been little evidence to show they actually work, until now.
Compared to significant research on the health benefits of dog ownership, there are very few controlled trials on the health outcomes of therapy dogs. A group of Canadian researchers recently set out to bridge this gap. Their work, which was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, reveals a small, but significant link between therapy dogs and improved mental health in emergency room patients.
“This is the first controlled trial of its kind that our team knows of in Canada,” Colleen Dell, a co-author on the study and an associate at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health, tells Inverse.
What’s new — The researchers found that spending just ten minutes with therapy dogs improved hospital patients’ overall well-being. Compared to patients who hadn’t spent time with therapy dogs, those who did reported significantly lower levels of anxiety and depression following the visit.
Patients who experienced the therapy dog visits also reported increased well-being compared to those who did not, as well as significantly lower pain ratings.
“These findings suggest that the therapy dog intervention had a positive effect on reducing participant pain,” the researchers write.
This study “offers a clearer understanding of the potential value of therapy dogs in the emergency department,” Dell says.
Why it matters — Patients commonly visit the emergency room to manage pain, and mental health concerns like anxiety often make the pain worse.
“People attend the Emergency Department primarily for pain, and associated anxiety can make it worse because of environmental stressors, such as bright lights and long wait times,” Dell says.
Therefore, understanding how one method of care — therapy dogs — impacts pain and mental health will be enormously valuable in improving patients’ well-being in these situations.
“Interacting with a therapy dog can make the ER visit a little calmer and help the patient and family realize that all the members of the ER staff are there to help and support them,” James Stempien, a co-author on the study and the provisional head of emergency medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, tells Inverse.
There’s also a timely reason for this study, the paper notes. As concern over the mounting opioid epidemic grows, clinicians are seeking alternative pain relief methods for their patients.
“There is a prior study that found involving therapy dogs in patient care plans following joint replacement surgery improved patient pain scores,” Dell says.
Another study found that the distraction therapy dogs provided did not reduce the patients’ source of pain but it did affect their perception of pain according to Dell. In a sense, doctors have been informally “ prescribing” people’s own pets to help them with depression and chronic pain, Dell explains.
“Many hospitals, care homes, jails, university campuses...are constantly asking that therapy dogs attend because they can assist people in numerous ways,” Dell says.
But Dell also stresses we need more research before therapy dogs can serve as a catch-all treatment for pain in emergency departments or other settings. After all, dogs are also “sentient beings” and not medications we can simply dole out, Dell says.
How they made the discovery — Researchers recruited hundreds of patients at the Royal University Hospital Emergency Department to participate in their trial; the hospital has a longstanding therapy dog program.
Ultimately, 97 patients were selected to receive therapy dog visits, while 101 patients participated in the control group that did not receive such therapy. Researchers measured the patients’ pain severity, anxiety, depression, and general well-being on a rating scale according to the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System. Higher ratings indicated worse patient outcomes.
On average, therapy dogs spent ten minutes with each patient. The researchers conducted follow-up visits and used a quantitative data analysis program to determine the differences in patients’ scores before and after therapy dog visits. Finally, researchers also reviewed any pain medications patients were taking to ensure they were accurately measuring the effects of the therapy dogs and not other factors.
What’s next — While these findings are significant, the researchers are also quick to point out there are considerable limitations in their study. For one thing, the sample size of participants is small.
The researchers write that “a larger sample would be needed to examine the interaction of multiple key demographic independent variables,” such as the therapy dog’s experience levels and patient backgrounds such as ethnicity or age.
Other factors, like the potential impact of the dogs’ human handlers on therapeutic benefits, will require further study in future research to “even more precisely isolate what is happening for the patient,” Dell says.
For now, though, the new work provides tangible proof of a treatment for pain that doctors and patients have long known works.