Animal-Assisted Therapy for Hospitalized Heart Failure Patients

by Shaun Damon

The health benefits of pets for humans have long been championed and hailed by animal lovers and pet enthusiasts, and their convictions seem to be validated from scientific studies. A study conducted at the University of California Medical Center in Los Angeles hints that just a little time spent in the company of man's best friend can offer significant relief from anxiety, for patients suffering heart failure. According to researcher Kathie Cole, RN, the time spent with a dog has an effect that is extremely calming and could offer benefits to their health and well being. In patients suffering heart failure, there is a gradual loss of ability for the heart to pump blood effectively. This contributes to various other problems and simply walking across the room can leave the patient gasping for breath, and many don't survive for over five years.

Cole's study clearly demonstrated that a visit from a dog for just twelve minutes could improve functioning of the heart and lungs, while decreasing anxiety in patients hospitalized for heart failure. The benefits of this approach far surpassed any results from visits with human volunteers or from no visits. This approach, which is medically termed as animal-assisted therapy, has already been proven to reduce blood pressure for hypertension patients and involves the use of scheduled visits and meetings with dogs. Just a decade ago such a therapeutic approach was considered as simply a superficial nicety rather than of any practical value, but studies such as this have gradually changed that perception within the medical fraternity. This particular study was in fact presented at the American Heart Association's annual meeting.

Research conducted at the UCLA medical center studied 76 patients, hospitalized for heart failure, and patients were assigned visits from a trained volunteer, or a dog, or to be left unvisited, with both visits being for equal time, in a random manner. Twelve different breeds of dogs were used and the dog would lie beside the patient, on the bed, allowing interaction and physical contact. Anxiety levels fell by 24 percent, following a visit by the dog, as compared to 10 percent, following a human visit. Patients left alone displayed no such fluctuation in anxiety levels. Levels of epinephrine, the stress hormone, were lowered by an average of 17 percent among patients treated to a dog as opposed to the 2 percent decrease among patients visited by humans. Levels in those left alone rose by 7 percent.

According to Sidney Smith, Jr., MD, a professor of medicine (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and an American Heart Association spokesman, the study clearly indicates the physiological and psychological benefits of interaction with animals.


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  2. M. A. Halm, The Healing Power of the Human-Animal Connection, Am. J. Crit. Care., July 1, 2008; 17(4): 373 – 376

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