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Dogs Are Doggone Good at Chasing Away the Blues

Animal-assisted therapy reduces nursing home loneliness, study finds

FRIDAY, June 28, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Dogs really may be man's best friend -- and woman's, too.

Nursing home residents who received visits from canine companions reported feeling less lonely than those who didn't have a furry friend, according to new research published in the current issue of The Journal of Gerontology.

"We already have a lot of anecdotal reports on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy," explains Maryellen Elcock, the director of animal-assisted therapy services for the Delta Society in Renton, Wash. "This study is a nice example of a well-controlled study, and it's something that has been lacking in the field."

Researchers from St. Louis University School of Medicine and the VA Medical Center in St. Louis recruited 45 elderly patients living in long-term care facilities for the study. Fifteen of them received one animal visit a week for six weeks, another 15 received three canine visits per week for six weeks, and the final 15 acted as a control group and did not have any animal visitors.

Most of the volunteers were women (80 percent), over 75 (70 percent), white (90 percent) and widowed (78 percent). None was cognitively impaired. All but two had had a pet during childhood, and they all said they would like to have an animal now, but couldn't because they were living in a nursing home.

The researchers administered three psychological tests at the start of the study, and then again after six weeks.

They found that visits from the animals, whether once or three times a week, significantly reduced loneliness.

These findings don't surprise Barbara Cowen, the volunteer coordinator for the "Pooch Program" at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "There is so much anxiety and apprehension in the hospital and the dog brings in a more homey environment. Dogs make patients feel like they're not alone," she says.

Lori Martinez, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Baptist Hospital of Miami, uses animals with her patients and says animal-assisted therapy has numerous benefits: "Animal therapy improves a patient's socialization and communication. It brings them out of their room, helps with boredom and loneliness, helps them reminisce and brightens their mood."

Martinez adds the benefits aren't only psychological. For example, she uses dogs to help stroke victims regain the use of their arms or hands by stroking the dog repeatedly.

The best part, says Cowen, is the benefits are mutual. She says the dogs seem to love coming to the hospital, because "they get so much attention when they're here."

What To Do

To learn more about the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, visit Dog Play or the Delta Society.

SOURCES: Maryellen Elcock, M.P.H., Ph.D., director, animal-assisted therapy services, Delta Society, Renton, Wash.; Barbara Cowen, L.C.S.W., volunteer coordinator, "Pooch Program", Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; Lori Martinez, certified therapeutic recreation specialist, Baptist Hospital of Miami; July 2002 The Journal of Gerontology
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