TUESDAY, Nov. 15, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- If a dog is man's best friend, maybe it's because a canine is heart-friendly.
Though the technique isn't taught in medical schools, researchers report that just a 12-minute visit with a dog improved heart and lung function in men and women hospitalized with heart failure, a new study found.
The research was funded by PetCare Trust Foundation and was presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Dallas.
"This was the first randomized, controlled study to show that animal-assisted therapy can be used as an effective adjunct treatment to improve pulmonary function, decrease neuroendocrine levels and anxiety in acute and critically ill hospitalized patients with heart failure," said study lead author Kathie Cole, a clinical nurse at UCLA Medical Center and School of Nursing in Los Angeles.
Animal-assisted therapy has previously been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate and cardiovascular risks. It has also been shown to reduce anxiety, isolation, and fear of procedures while improving social interactions in hospitalized patients.
But, Cole said, "there have been no randomized trials of the effects of animal-assisted therapy done in acute and critical ill patients hospitalized with heart failure."
The study authors hypothesized that such therapy might have an effect on cardiac function, neuroendocrine activation and psychological changes in mood resulting from the stress of living with a chronic, life-threatening illness.
In all, 76 heart-failure patients aged 18 to 80 at UCLA were randomly assigned to one of three groups: Those receiving a visit from a dog and volunteer (26 patients), those receiving a visit from a volunteer alone (25) and those receiving no visit at all (25).
Each visit lasted 12 minutes, during which time the dog would sit next to a chair or lie next to the patient on the bed, with its head two feet from the patient's head. The patient could then pet and/or talk to the dog.
Anxiety scores fell 24 percent for patients who received a visit from the dog team, but only 10 percent for those participants who were visited by a human volunteer. The score for patients who received usual care and no visit was unchanged.
There were also improvements in levels of the stress hormone epinephrine, with levels dropping an average of 17 percent in the dog-team group and 2 percent in the volunteer-only group, while rising 7 percent in the control group.
Pulmonary capillary wedge -- a measurement of left atrial pressure in the heart -- dropped 10 percent in the dog therapy group while increasing 3 percent in the volunteer-only group and 5 percent in the control group.
Systolic pulmonary artery pressure, a measure of pressure in the lungs, dropped 5 percent during the dog visit and another 5 percent after the visit. It rose in the other two groups.
Although medical residents may not be trained in the art of dog handling, dogs are certainly trained in the art of ministering to patients. All canines in this study were certified, had passed a behavioral evaluation and received classroom instruction.
Cole offered this caution, however: "It's not really very easy [to set up this kind of program]. It's definitely something that needs to be planned and organized."
For more on animal-assisted therapy, visit the Delta Society.