Study: Therapy Dogs Reduce Anxiety in ER Patients

Dogs make everything better. Just ask any dog owner—or just about any scientist, for that matter.

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According to a study published in the journal PLoS One, therapy dogs could bring real health benefits to patients in emergency rooms. This news is just the latest example on a long list of ways therapy dogs have been shown to help the sick—they've also been shown in studies to help reduce the need for pain medication in patients who have recently undergone surgery, decrease the likelihood of depression among chemo patients, and help treat anxiety among women with high-risk pregnancies. (On the flip side, therapy dogs weren't shown to help with mental heath of people undergoing radiation therapy or with pain among hospitalized children.)

So, what does this latest study bring to the table in terms of the impact therapy dogs can have in medical settings? Well, the study, which was conducted at the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis by researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, specifically looked into whether or not 15 minutes of interaction with a therapy dog could reduce anxiety among patients in the emergency room. The study, led by Dr. Jeffery Kline, is the first true randomized clinical trial of the impact of "pet therapy" in emergency room settings.

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For the study, patients in the hospital's ER were asked if they would be interested in participating. In order to qualify for the study, patients had to be at least 18 years old, awake, alert, "not overly intoxicated," and an ER doctor had to have identified them as someone experiencing "moderate or greater anxiety."

The 80 patients who qualified and were interested in participating were randomly sorted into either the therapy dog group (aka the Fun Group) or the usual care group (aka Dull City). The patients in the therapy dog group were introduced to a trained therapy dog and its handler just before being assigned their individual room (meaning they, sadly, didn't get to kill all of their waiting room time being bathed in puppy kisses). The dog and handler stayed with the patient in their individual room for 15 minutes.

The results? We kind of spoiled it at the beginning, but the therapy dogs helped. Compared to the non-therapy dog group, the members of the therapy dog group were less anxious after interacting with the dogs. Before anyone met any dogs, members of both groups rated their anxiety, on average, as a 6 out of 10 (with 10 being the most anxious). After interacting with the dogs, the members of the therapy dog group's average anxiety rating dropped to a 2, while members of the other group hung tight at a 6 after the same amount of time without a dog to interact with.

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And, as a bonus, only one of the 40 patients in the therapy dog group needed opioid medication to reduce their pain, while seven of the 40 patients in the non-therapy dog group needed opioids for pain. Only one of the dog group patients needed an anti-anxiety drug, while seven non-dog group patients needed anti-anxiety meds.

So, tl;dr: Allowing anxious patients the option to interact with a therapy dog during a trip to the ER can lower anxiety and maybe even reduce the need for strong painkillers and anxiety medication later during the visit.