Animal Companionship – 2021 Update

Animals are providing more patients bright spots in the midst of difficulty, thanks to a growing arena of health research.

Almost any patient can request visits from dogs as part of Dogs on Call at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Medical Center in Richmond.

The program’s volunteers have heard “so many” success stories, says Dr. Sandra Barker, director of VCU’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction, which runs Dogs on Call.

“Parents in the hospital often thank our Dogs On Call teams for bringing a smile to their children’s faces when they haven’t seen one for days, or seeing their children sit up for the first time,” she said. “Physicians thank our teams for making it easier to perform painful procedures by having the therapy dogs present.”

They receive written notes expressing gratitude for bringing joy to an otherwise discouraging situation.

“I could go on and on,” Barker said.

Her stories help explain why such programs are gaining popularity—and so does the growing body of research demonstrating the ways animals can improve quality of life for many people, including those with chronic illness.

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Trained animals

According to Barker, close to 65 percent of U.S. households own pets.

“Yet only fairly recently have we begun to explore the impact of this relationship on health,” she said. The center researches animals in hospitals, colleges, workplaces and communities—measuring their impact on health indicators such as stress.

Studying animal companionship fits into the well-established link between strong social support and better health.

“We believe that companion animals represent a form of nonjudgmental social support,” Barker said. They have demonstrated a range of benefits related to that support for a variety of health circumstances.

“Several studies, including ours, show benefits of animal-assisted interactions for people with psychiatric disorders including reduced fear and anxiety, and increased motivation to attend group therapy when a therapy dog is present,” she said. “Others have also investigated benefits of pet ownership for older adults, noting reduced depression and loneliness.”

Numerous studies have also demonstrated important benefits of pet ownership for people with heart conditions.

“These studies found reduced cardiovascular reactivity to stressful events, lower systolic blood pressure, increased physical activity, and increased survival associated with established cardiovascular disease,” Barker said.

Other studies have shown that when humans interact with dogs they feel less stress. Such research has specific significance for people with chronic illness.

“It is well accepted that stress contributes to many chronic illnesses so we contend that interacting with dogs may buffer the impact of stress and thereby contribute to improved health,” Barker said.

Not for everyone

Medical professionals, including Barker, are quick to note keeping animals, or engaging with them for therapeutic purposes won’t be the right option for everyone.

“Pet ownership is not a good idea for anyone who is not willing or able to adequately provide for the health and welfare of the pet,” she said. “Animal-assisted interventions are not appropriate for anyone who does not consent for them and for persons with compromised immune systems.”

In certain instances, pets can interfere with medical intervention, noted a literature review on pet ownership and human health published in the journal, BMJ. For example, people with pets can be less likely to accept medical help if it means they’ll need to be away from their pets. Some aren’t emotionally equipped to cope with a potential loss of the animal. Others may experience heightened allergic reactions as a result of an illness.

Animal ownership also costs money. Health insurance does not cover animal-assisted interventions, although many therapy programs are provided at no cost. Do research and check with your doctor before considering animal-related therapies or services. Animal training is also important.

Barker said training for potential therapy animals should begin early by keeping pets well socialized and comfortable in a variety of settings. Dogs on Call dogs are registered with a therapy animal organization, either Pet Partners or Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and go through training and evaluation to ensure the dogs’ temperaments, health and behavior is compatible with the program.

“Basic obedience training is important to make sure the therapy animal follows control commands,” she said. “Therapy animals must be predictable, reliable, always under the handler’s control and never show aggressive tendencies. For hospitals, we recommend therapy animals be limited to dogs.”

Barker hopes support for animal-assisted interventions continues to grow. She sees therapy dogs as a low-cost complement to traditional medicine that can improve quality of life for many people, without negative side effects.

“I also hope that more health care facilities develop policies and procedures for appropriately trained and evaluated therapy dog teams to interact with their patients and staff,” she said.

Check for therapy dog groups or programs in your area to volunteer or to request animal-assisted care. Learn more about the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at chai.vcu.edu.

Individual animal support

Animal assistance can also be helpful to people with chronic illness on a more permanent basis—with service animals and emotional support animals.

Both are slightly different than therapy dogs.

Service animals

  • To qualify: You have a disability as described by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that significantly limits your ability to do at least one major life task. ADA only recognizes service dogs (and in specific cases miniature horses).
  •  Potential tasks: Service dogs might provide guidance, detect seizures, carry oxygen, recognize and assist with panic attacks, alert you to take medication, stabilize you and more.
  • Training required: Service dogs are trained to perform or assist with specific tasks that mitigate the disability. No certification is required by law, but many states offer training programs.
  •  Protections: The ADA and other legislature require access to government services, places of public accommodation, employment, telecommunications and transportation. That includes no-pet housing, free of charge. In some instances, identification is required.

Emotional support animals

  • To qualify: A licensed health professional prescribes an emotional support animal (ESA) as part of a treatment regimen for a mental health condition. Any domesticated animal qualifies.
  • Potential tasks: Provide comfort, affection, social support and reassurance.
  • Training required: None.
  • Protections: The ADA does not protect emotional-support animals. However, the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 offer some protections for flying with an ESA and accessing no-pet and pet-feeless housing.