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Dogs may also be a doctor’s best friend.
For patients suffering from pain in the emergency room, just 10 minutes with a four-legged friend may help reduce pain, according to a study published Wednesday.
The results support what dog lovers everywhere have long suspected — canine affection cures all ills — as well as provides a bit of optimism for patients and health care providers frequently grappling with strapped hospital resources in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“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,” said lead study author Colleen Dell, the research chair in One Health and Wellness and professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, asked more than 200 patients in the emergency room to report their level of pain on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 as the highest level of pain). A control group had no intervention for their pain, while participants in the other group were given 10 minutes of time with a therapy dog, and patients rated their pain levels again, according to the study.
Those who got the visit from the dogs reported less pain.
The study has a strong methodology, said Jessica Chubak, senior investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. Chubak, who was not involved with the study, noted that there is still a lot to learn about therapy dogs.
“The results of the study are promising,” she said in an email. “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.”
Dell hopes that research like this study means we can stop asking if therapy dogs are helpful in a medical context and start asking how they help and how to integrate them better with health care teams.
In the hospital
The emergency room experience might actually contribute to patients’ pain.
The bright lights, long waits, anxiety and focus on immediate, acute conditions can make the feeling worse, said Erin Beckwell, a dog owner who has experienced chronic pain for much of her life.
“It’s not a place that you usually get escorted to a comfy room that’s quiet and gives us any sort of specific interventions,” she said. “It’s often suggestions of things you’ve already tried, and then they send you home after a long time of distressing and anxiety-provoking, pain-filled waiting.
“You may not come out feeling like you were even really heard.”
Some people have a misperception that utilizing therapy dogs can transmit disease and risk hygiene in a hospital setting, but Dell said there are ways health care providers can utilize them in sanitary ways to make the whole system operate better.
Mike MacFadden, a nurse practitioner based in Canada, said he sees a lot of potential in incorporating therapy dogs as part of a holistic approach to pain treatment in the emergency room, and that it could help everyone involved.
“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.”
In the home
Pain can be thought of as both a physical and social experience, said Michelle Gagnon, assistant professor of psychology and health studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Gagnon was not involved with the study.
Anxiety, depression, having support or being dismissed can all have an impact on how we experience pain, she said. It makes sense that spending time with a creature that brings you joy and doesn’t invalidate your feelings can help you feel better.
“The things that you can gain from pets and some of the positive emotions that could be elicited from having the pet around you I think could have an impact on the pain experience itself,” she said.
Beckwell said she has experienced it personally with her 10-year-old cocker spaniel, Reilly, as she has experienced arthritis and autoimmune disorders.
“I feel more in control of the situation and less panicked or anxious about the severity of my pain, the duration of my pain, those sorts of things when I have that unconditional support from my dog,” Beckwell said. “She will come in, and she has learned over the years when I’m in pain she can’t sit on my lap.
“I don’t need to tell her — she knows,” Beckwell said.