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Tails of the unexpected

As well as dogs that assist people who are blind, or those trained to respond to seizures, animals can also play an important role in occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical rehabilitation.

Irish Therapy Dogs was established eight years ago and has since formed alliances with other voluntary, medical and educational organisations to document the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy.

The volunteer organisation provides physical, therapeutic and educational benefits to young and older people in hospitals, nursing homes, day care centres, schools and rehabilitation centres across the country, CEO Ms Brenda Rickard tells the Medical Independent (MI).

“We go wherever we’re requested,” explains Ms Rickard. “We operate all over the country.”

Facilities that have been visited include Beaumont Hospital, Dublin; St Patrick’s Hospital and St John of God Hospital, both in Dublin; University Hospital Limerick’s Department of Psychiatry; St Conal’s Psychiatric Hospital, Letterkenny, Co Donegal; and the Galway Hospice Foundation.

“We have 250 teams at the moment and a team consists of a person and a dog. Somebody is placed at a centre and they visit that same centre at the same day and time every week,” says Ms Rickard.

“That way, the residents have a routine and they know the dog is coming in. It’s a big commitment for our volunteers; we stress that. Continuity is essential. People might not remember the volunteer’s name but they remember the dog’s name; even someone who might have limited mental capacity will still know the dog’s name and the day we are coming in.”

Communication

Interacting with a dog can increase the production of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, helping to calm and relax people, Ms Rickard points out.  Scientific evidence is increasing about the positive results of such therapy.

Ms Rickard sees it first-hand. “People’s communication improves, their depression lifts. It changes everyone’s demeanour when a dog walks in. They feel better and they interact better. They might not speak to people much but they will communicate with the dog. No matter the age groups, the reaction is amazing. You see people’s faces light up.”

People’s communication improves, their depression lifts. It changes everyone’s demeanor when a dog walks in.

Volunteers keep to their visit schedule for as long as possible and some have been going to the same centres since the organisation started eight years ago.

Prior to joining the volunteer team, there is an assessment of the person and the dog, Ms Rickard tells MI.

The success of the organisation can also be judged by the fact that there is a waiting list of centres seeking visits. “We are looking for volunteers because we have a large number of centres waiting all over the country. Some of the centres we visit are very big. We meet 25 to 30 people on a visit and some centres would have four or five visiting teams so that the therapy can be done properly. It’s therapy, it’s not just a visit,” she emphasises.

Dr Deborah Wells has made the subject of pets and their link with human health one of her main areas of research for a number of years. She is based at Queen’s University Belfast, where she is Reader in Psychology at the School at Behavioural Sciences.

“There is substantial evidence to support the long-held belief that pets are good for us,” she tells MI. “Research points to both the physical and psychological health benefits that people can gain from the ownership of a pet, notably a dog.

“These animals can lower short-term heart rate and blood pressure via stroking, improve our chances of recovering from ill-health and bolster mental wellbeing by enhancing self-esteem and decreasing feelings of social isolation and depression. Dogs can also serve as strong social catalysts, improving our health indirectly by facilitating interactions with other people.”

But Dr Wells also stresses that the medical profession needs to see more research on the role that pets play in helping people to live healthier lives.

 “Although research is pointing to beneficial effects of pets on human health, much further work is still needed to be carried out before the medical profession will be in a position to take some of the findings on board. More longitudinal studies are needed to try and elucidate the mechanisms underlying the ability of pets to promote physical and psychological wellbeing in people.”

Dr Wells also cites her review published in 2007 in the British Journal of Health Psychology, analysing earlier research papers on the health benefits of pet ownership, in which she confirmed that dog owners tended to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol and suffered fewer minor ailments and serious medical problems.

Regular walks are only part of the explanation, she suggests. Increased social interaction is also a key factor. “The ownership of a dog can also lead to increases in physical activity and facilitate the development of social contacts, which may enhance both physiological and psychological human health in a more indirect manner,” according to Dr Wells.

Heart disease

The American Heart Association (AHA) weighed-in on the subject in a scientific statement released in 2013, which said that owning a pet, particularly a dog, could reduce the risk of heart disease.

The statement’s lead author Prof Glenn Levine, Professor of Medicine and Director of Cardiac Care at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, US, discusses the thinking behind the statement in an interview with MI.

“The reason we undertook this is that there were scattered reports over the last 20 years around the world about the benefits of pets, but nobody had systematically looked at all these reports and we are always looking for novel ways to reduce the burden of heart disease and the risk of developing heart disease. So we undertook the review to critically look at the data.

“What we found is that there was enough data for us to conclude that pet ownership was probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and the studies that had the most data showed that dog ownership was probably most likely to cause some reduction in cardiovascular disease. Those were our conclusions.”

The authors did not recommend that “everyone go out and just buy a pet”, outlines Prof Levine. Rather, the recommendation was more cautious and nuanced: Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, “may be reasonable to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease”.

There were a couple of caveats, he emphasises. “One was that there was not enough data to definitively conclude that there was a casual relationship but there was some data that showed there was an association and that there was some data that said dog ownership may, in some manner, help reduce heart disease.

“The other thing that we were very careful to state was that we did not want people to go out and adopt dogs just to reduce their risk of heart disease. That was for two reasons. One was that we strongly felt the primary reason to rescue a dog was a humanitarian reason — that is, to give a dog a home, not to reduce the chances of heart disease. The second was that getting a dog or cat or whatever is not really the main way to reduce the risk of heart disease. You can’t adopt a dog and then continue to sit on the couch and smoke cigarettes and eat potato chips.

“What you really need to do is to follow guideline recommendations to take steps to reduce your risk and if in the course of adopting or rescuing a pet, it decreases your stress levels a little bit or prompts you to go for daily walks once or twice a day for 20 minutes and those happen to have the beneficial effects on heart disease, that’s a bonus.”

The best data, according to Prof Levine, showed that when people adopted a dog, “many, though not all, tended to increase their daily physical activity naturally enough by daily walking the dog”.

Snakes

The reason dogs seem to get more credit than other animals appears to be that their link to human health has simply been studied more.

“There were some studies looking at other animals like cats and even snakes, but most studies and the best data involved dogs,” notes Prof Levine.

The data and studies he examined in drawing-up the AHA statement were from throughout the world, he adds. “We addressed only the cardiovascular area but there are many studies and a tremendous amount of literature looking at mental health benefits.”

The bottom line, he stresses, is that while pet ownership is associated with a reduction in heart disease risk factors and increased survival among patients, the studies are not definitive.

“It may be simply that healthier people are the ones that have pets, not that having a pet actually leads to or causes reduction in cardiovascular risk.”

Or, to paraphrase his earlier statement, if Santa does bring you a dog, you’ve got to exercise with it — not just sit on the couch petting it while having another helping of plum pudding.

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