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Pet Therapy - Pain Reduction from Animal Assisted Therapy

  • Published: 2014-08-13 (Revised/Updated 2017-06-28) : Thomas C. Weiss (Disabled World).
  • Synopsis: Animal-assisted therapy can significantly reduce anxiety, pain, fatigue and depression in people who experience a range of health issues.

Main Document

Quote: "As a person who experiences osteoarthritis and other forms of disabilities, the two little dogs I own have been nothing but supportive, loving, caring and tremendously helpful."

'Pet therapy,' is a term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other types of animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field, one that uses dogs and other animals to help people to recover from, or better cope with, health issues such as cancer, mental health disorders, or heart disease. Animal-assisted activities, in comparison, have a more general purpose such as providing enjoyment and comfort for people in long-term care.

Imagine for a moment that you are in the hospital and a doctor mentions the hospital's animal-assisted therapy program. The doctor asks you if you would be interested in participating. You tell the doctor yes, you would like to participate and the doctor arranges for someone to tell you more about the program. A short while later, an assistance dog and its handler visit you in your hospital room. The dog and its handler stay with you in your hospital room for around 10-15 minutes and you are invited to pet the dog and ask the handler questions.

After the visit has ended, you realize that you are smiling. You feel a bit less tired and a tad more optimistic. You find that you cannot wait to tell your family members and friends about the wonderful dog that has visited you. In fact - you find yourself looking forward to the next visit from the dog and its handler.

The Benefits of Animal-assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy can significantly reduce anxiety, pain, fatigue and depression in people who experience a range of health issues. For example; animal-assisted therapy can help:

Chart showing people with conditions pet therapy helps
About This Image: Chart showing people with conditions pet therapy helps
The benefits of animal-assisted therapy extend beyond the person the visit is intended to help. Family members and friends who remain during a visit by a handler and an animal also say they feel better. The form of therapy is used in non-medical settings as well. Places such as community programs and universities pursue this therapy to help people deal with stress and anxiety.

The main concern about pet therapy, especially in medical facilities, involves safety and sanitation. The majority of hospitals and other medical facilities such as long-term care facilities have strict rules regarding therapy pets. The rules are in place to make sure the animals are vaccinated, clean, are well-trained and are screened for appropriate behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to receive a report of infection from an animal involved in animal-assisted therapy.

In fact - more than a dozen certified therapy dogs are involved in the Mayo Clinic's, 'Caring Canines,' program. The dogs regularly visit a number of hospital departments and make special visits upon request. In one example of success, a 5 year-old girl was recovering from surgery on her spine. The therapy dog helped the girl to re-learn how to walk, taking a step back every time she took one forward.

Pet Therapy and Fibromyalgia

Doctor Dawn Marcus is the lead author of a study at a Pittsburgh pain clinic. She measured the impact of a brief visit with a therapy dog in people who experience fibromyalgia. During a 10-15 minute timespan before their appointment with their doctor, 84 people received pet therapy. Another 49 people with fibromyalgia simply spent the time in a waiting room. A short questionnaire both before and after a visit from a therapy dog, or wait time, were used to detect differences in people's symptoms.

Chart showing things pet therapy improves
About This Image: Chart showing things pet therapy improves
Dr. Marcus, in regards to her test results stated, "Overall, pain severity was significantly reduced after a brief therapy dog visit." In fact, all measures including:

improved, not simply the pain level the person experienced. Somewhat longer visits often produced better results in the group involved with pet therapy. Fatigue and cheerfulness worsened as time passed for the group of people sitting in the waiting room.

Dr. Marcus said, "Clinically meaningful pain relief was reported in 34% of the fibromyalgia patients after the dog visit versus only 4% in the waiting room controls. Effects did not appear to be substantially influenced by coexisting mood disorder symptoms." Overall satisfaction with visits from therapy dogs was 92%. The effectiveness of the pet therapy was not dependent upon whether the person viewed themselves as a, 'dog lover,' or a person who preferred cats.

Health care providers might struggle with recommending pet therapy to people with fibromyalgia because of the limited number of studies performed in regards to the benefits of this type of therapy, along with its costs and availability. While costs and availability are not a barrier for doctors who want to provide pet therapy for people in their waiting room, studies have offered a basis for the practice.

A Personal Experience

As a person who experiences osteoarthritis and other forms of disabilities, the two little dogs I own have been nothing but supportive, loving, caring and tremendously helpful. 'Frijole,' serves as a hearing assistant dog, making sure I know when the oven timer has gone off, if there is a person at the door, or if the phone rings. 'Ozzie,' on the hand, is a shelter dog who has quite the knack for telling when I am in pain. He comforts me when my joints are bothering me and rarely fails to make me smile and feel better.

You do not have to wait for a doctor to offer you pet therapy; I didn't. You can reap some incredible benefits from it. If you do not have a pet you can contact your local Humane Society like I did. You might also contact a veterinarian clinic to find out what pet therapy programs are in your community. You might also volunteer for a while to figure out what type of animal is best for you.

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