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Intensive care unit going to the dogs to help elderly patients

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
UT Health researchers study how therapy dogs can help elderly in the ICU

University of Texas Health Science Center researchers are exploring the use of therapy dogs in the intensive care unit to help elderly patients heal. Investigators from UT Health are launching a study that they expect will scientifically prove dogs can help ICU patients recover from disease.


The UT team was awarded a grant from the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) that they will use to investigate how brief visits from a therapy dog reduces stress in elderly ICU patients. Stress that can occur in a hospital setting, especially intensive care, can have a negative impact on healing.

"HABRI’s grant to UTHealth will help advance the science that demonstrates the benefits of companion animals for disease recovery and healthy aging,” said HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman in an e-mail press statement.

“The deployment of therapy animals in hospital setting is a growing trend. We want as many people as possible to benefit from the healing power of the human-animal bond.”

According to the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, 83% of 337 healthcare facilities surveyed allow furry friends to help patients.

A survey of 1,000 doctors* found that 69% had worked with animals in some way to benefit patients in either a hospital, outpatient setting or with some form of animal-assisted therapy.

See: How dogs help patients with MS

Pups in the ICU could provide measurable benefits

Anxiety raises levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, that is known to interfere with immune function. The result can lead to new illnesses and hamper recovery from existing ailments.

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The UT scientists plan to measure the effect of allowing therapy dogs into the ICU for random 10-minute visits and compare the physiological response on inflammatory, endocrine and psychological response to a control group.

The study will take place over 18-months and will include two groups of 10 elderly ICU patients. The initiative should show how valuable animals are to human health - for those who don't already know, that is.

If you agree the pilot study, "Biobehavioral Effects of Therapy Dog Visitation in Elderly Intensive Care Unit Patients" is a good use of research money, give us a "paws up" with a comment.

The Pawsitive Pals Pet Therapy Program at San Diego Hospice and The Institute for Palliative Medicine has been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety and isolation experienced by patients who are receiving hospice services.

Dogs also help veterans with PTSD.

Therapy dogs would be a low-cost initiative that could become a routine part of hospital care. In my opinion, canine ICU visitations would be nothing short of a giant leap forward for boosting health and well-being.


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