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Therapy dogs can help relieve pain in emergency room patients, new study finds

'Participants in the therapy dog team group rated pain significantly lower than those in the control group at the post-intervention measurement.'

Therapy dogs can help relieve pain in emergency room patients, new study finds
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages

A new study published in the journal PLOS One this week has found that spending a few minutes with a therapy dog can help relieve patients' pain in the emergency room. The research from the University of Saskatchewan determined that as little as 10 minutes with a four-legged friend can have a positive effect on people by reducing their pain, anxiety and depression. "There is research showing that pets are an important part of our health in different ways. They motivate us, they get us up, (give us) routines, the human-animal bond," lead study author Dr. Colleen Dell, the research chair in One Health and Wellness and professor at the University of Saskatchewan," told CNN.

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"Therapy dogs themselves... they're just really friendly, family pets that are so excited to visit with people and in places where you don't typically have a pet," Dr. Dell explained in an interview with NPR. "And just going into the emergency department was a natural." The study collected data from more than 200 emergency room patients at The Royal University Hospital Emergency Department in Saskatchewan, Canada, which was reportedly chosen for its "longstanding visiting therapy dog program."

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Researchers asked patients—who were waiting to be seen by a doctor, in treatment or waiting for a bed—to report their pain levels from 1 (the lowest) to 10 (the highest). The patients were divided into two groups, with one group receiving a 10-minute visit from a therapy dog and the other not. Those who spent 10 minutes with the dog reported less pain after visiting with the dogs. "Participants in the therapy dog team group rated pain significantly lower than those in the control group at the post-intervention measurement," the study noted. The results of the study, while promising, weren't surprising for Dell and her study co-lead, emergency room physician Dr. James Stempien.

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People have long experienced benefits from therapy dogs, said Dell, who herself is a therapy dog handler. This study just clinically proves what was already speculated. Dell—who has researched indigenous health and mental health—added that the use of therapy dogs in healthcare echoes indigenous approaches to health, which are much more holistic and concerned with animals and the land. Although many cultures share this philosophy, it's not dominant in Western culture. This controlled trial "is speaking Western language," she said. "The results of the study are promising," said Jessica Chubak—a senior investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute— who was not involved with the study. "Our current understanding of the effects of therapy dog visits in emergency department settings is fairly limited. So, it is particularly important to have more research in this area."

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Mike MacFadden, a nurse practitioner based in Canada, sees a lot of potential in incorporating therapy dogs as part of a holistic approach to pain treatment in the emergency room. "Emergency service teams can feel conflicted and experience moral distress resulting from their inability to meet their own expectations for optimal care. With people's experience of pain being multifaceted, we know that a multifaceted approach is most beneficial to meet the needs of patients," McFadden said. "The presence of a therapy dog not only has the benefits of supporting the patient's experience, but I think it also serves as a comfort to the care providers." However, humans aren't the only ones getting something out of this, Dell said. Therapy dogs "love their job, they love people," she said. "We need more research on this, but we know that they're getting out of it as well as giving."

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