Therapy Dogs May Help MS Patients with Mobility
Mobility challenges are a significant problem for people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Therapy dogs may be one helpful solution for some individuals.
Motor symptoms frequently affect the lower extremities of people with MS as a result of lesions that develop in the descending motor sites of the spinal cord. Spasticity in the legs and trunk and/or loss of the Achilles reflex or other reflexes also can occur.
These motor challenges are typically associated with significant problems with balance, gait, and coordination. Difficulties with the upper extremities also may play a role in walking, maintaining balance, and using assistive devices such as canes or walkers.
Since every person who lives with multiple sclerosis has unique needs, use of a therapy dog who can assist with walking will not be appropriate for everyone. However, it is a treatment option that certain patients should discuss with their healthcare provider.
New study of therapy dogs for MS mobility
At the joint gathering of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers and the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis, Cecilie Fjeldstad, PhD, of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (Oklahoma City) presented her findings regarding the use of a therapy dog for individuals with MS who had moderate problems with walking. All 36 adults in the study were not currently using any type of walking device when they entered the study.
The therapy dog wore a special harness that was fitted with a flexible handle, which prevented the patients from leaning on the dog. In addition, the dog was trained to walk by the side of the patients—not falling behind or pulling ahead.
Each of the volunteer patients participated in four timed walks that were 25 feet in length: two with the dog and two without. Here are the results:
- Mean walking time without the dog: 9.3 seconds, which exceeds the 8 second limit used to define substantial impairment
- Mean walking time with the dog: 8.7 seconds. This may not sound like a lot, but the difference was statistically significant
In addition, another factor to consider is familiarity. Since the patients were not familiar with the therapy dog prior to the study, it can be expected that they would gain confidence with additional sessions, which in turn could improve their gait and mobility.
Fjeldstad noted that her findings, which are preliminary, suggest more research is needed into the use of therapy dogs for people with MS and mobility issues. In the meantime, if you have MS or have a loved one with the disease, the topic of a trained canine companion may be one to pursue.
Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers and the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis