A report released last week by researchers at the University of Maryland may have found the prescription for preserving and enhancing the mental health and physical function of the more than five million Americans suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is a wagging tail and warm nose.
Presented at the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organization (IAHAIO) Conference in Chicago, Ill., the study was done in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition. University of Maryland lead researcher Dr. Erika Friedmann explained the positive results of the study conducted among 40 dementia residents in assisted living facilities.
After 12 weeks of twice weekly 60-90 minute visits with the female Welsh Corgi dog used in the study, participants ranging in age from 56-92 experienced increased physical activity, measured in additional calories burned beyond activities of daily living, and no increase in depression which is typical of those with dementia.
“Normally we would expect to see a decline or deterioration, both in physical and mental health, in this population,” says Dr. Friedmann. “But the results demonstrate how animals integrated into therapeutic programs in facilities, rather than just relying on visitations from pet therapy volunteers, show real protocols can help specific issues.”
One gentleman in the study who suffered with dementia and Parkinson’s disease found it difficult to open the plastic baggie with his shaking hands to feed the dog her treats. However, instead of becoming frustrated, he asked the researcher if he could try again and the research team observed his improved mental and physical health on days the Corgi would visit.
Dr. Friedmann has conducted numerous studies in human-animal interaction (HAI) including a 1980s study of heart attack patients who adopted a pet after release from the hospital. Her findings were patients with a pet were more likely to be alive one year later than those patients who did not own a pet.
Replicating the study 15 years later, she found pet ownership not only relates to survival rates but also helped ensure social interaction for the patients with pets. This increased social activity helped the patients avoid the depression of isolation common among heart attack survivors.
Dr. Friedmann’s research led her to work with the American Heart Association to create a scientific statement on pet ownership as one prescription for cardiovascular health.
For the 15 million caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, finding memory care facilities which offer pet therapy programs or even considering pet ownership or visitations may help the overall health of a loved one.
In a 2009 study, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practices, older patients attained significant improvement in perceived energy levels and reductions in pain, respiratory rates and negative mood state with pet therapy.
The animal interaction allowed these seniors to reduce their anxiety, fatigue and inertia and gave them a renewed sense of purpose, distraction from physical distress and a comforting reminder of home.
Pet therapy is not a new concept. There are anecdotal stories from the 1700s and the first recorded program was in the 1860s when famous nurse Florence Nightingale recognized animals provided social support in the institutional care of mentally ill patients.
Since then, the therapeutic effect of pet interaction for both young and old have been supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other organizations. Identifying benefits in pain management for terminal or chronically ill patients; reducing depression for seniors living alone and in isolation; and improving physical rehabilitation for those who recently had surgery or those with disabilities or disorders such as autism, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, are the wonderful results pets provide in our approach to holistic health care.
Jan Vincent, a board of directors member for the Animal Health Foundation, find animals have special healing powers and a sixth sense that connect with us even in unconscious states.
“Dogs have a keen sense of smell that is so acute they can identify the hormonal changes in our bodies such as when cortisol is increased giving us more stress,” says Vincent. “They are also keen observers – much better than people – and read our body language perfectly.”
Vincent says if a person is anxious, fearful or sad, animals, particularly dogs, will seek to soothe and nurture which makes them a magic potion for both patients and caregivers needing comfort.
Maybe Dr. Doolittle had it right – talking to the animals is the prescription we need for better health and wellness.