Four-Legged Physicians: How Dogs Can Aid Patient Therapy

Dogs and humans have shared a special bond for over 12,000 years.  Clinical research has shown that dogs increase quality of life, finding that those living alone with a dog have a 33% decreased risk of death.  A study published by the Complementary Health Practice Review also found that pet owners are likely to have lower blood pressure, better cognitive function, and decreased anxiety than their non-pet owning counterparts. For those fighting along term or chronic illness, spending time with a dog can have broad health benefits for both the body and the mind.

Mental Health

A long term hospital stay is difficult for patients, particularly those in critical care units.  Even physicians with exceptional bedside manner can only do so much to mitigate the clinical nature of a hospital room. A study published in Critical Care shows that animal therapy can help ICU patients overcome the mental health issues associated with an extended hospital stay.  Bringing in a dog to engage with patients breaks up the monotony of the hospital, and improves mood. 74% of pet owners report improvements in mental health, showing that dogs lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Dementia And Alzheimer’s

Patients in nursing homes go through many of the same problems as those battling in an ICU.  Nursing homes pose a particularly great challenge for those with dementia and Alzheimers, as unfamiliar settings and faces can cause distress.  A promising study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias shows that dementia patients enrolled in animal-assisted therapy had decreased levels of agitation and greater social interaction than a control group.  Notably, many of the patients involved in the study had owned dogs in the past.  A key part of treating dementia-type disorders is involving patients in activities that they have enjoyed over the course of their life.  For animal lovers in nursing homes, playing with a dog for even a few hours a week can have a massive impact on their quality of life.

Exercise And Physical Fitness

Most dogs are seemingly boundless, furry balls of energy – particularly high energy, social breeds such as Black German Shepherds. Walking and playing with a high energy dog is necessary for their happiness, and comes with the obvious benefit of weight loss and a decreased chance of diabetes for people as well.  The benefits of playing with a dog can be much broader than weight loss. Exercise is a vital part of physical rehabilitation, and has shown to cause remission of major depressive disorder on par with antidepressants in clinical trials.  Coupled with the effort required to keep them healthy, a dog can give a person recovering from an illness a greater sense of purpose, which helps patients mentally as well as physically.

Registering a therapy dog requires a bit of work, but is a worthwhile vocation for both dog and owner.  While medications and in-patient care are necessary for many illnesses, a visit from a dog can help make the arduous process of getting healthy a little less taxing and far more rewarding.