Therapy dogs promote healing in the ICU through emotional well-being – proving effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical treatments

Friday, March 02, 2018 by

Experts from the the Johns Hopkins rehabilitation and ICU centers are calling for more nonpharmacological interventions in treating critically ill patients. They stress that previous thinking that “the right medication will improve a patient’s psychological status” is no longer valid and that interventions such as music therapy and relaxation training are far better in reducing hospital stays of patients as well as speeding recovery time. In particular, the Johns Hopkins doctors say that using a therapy animal can help ICU patients become more active and engaged in their recovery.

As written in their editorial piece published in Critical Care, “[Doctors] need to give less medicine and rely more on nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as…animal-assisted therapy to improve patient’s psychological status.”

Using a trained animal to help sick patients is not a new idea, but it has never been adapted to patients staying in the ICU. The Johns Hopkins doctors were curious to see if a therapy animal could help patients who were critically ill recover faster. They posited that being in an ICU “dehumanizes” patients, as many of them require some form of mechanical assistance to function. Most ICU patients need feeding tubes, ventilators, catheters or the like as they recover. The need for these technologies demoralizes ICU patients who often take a longer time to recover. An added factor is that ICU patients tend to be sedated and restricted to bed rest which further adds to their risk of developing a mental illness.

Previous studies have concluded that 80 percent of ICU patients have delirium — a mental condition characterized by disorientation, confusion, and sometimes hallucination. The delirium becomes more severe the less active the ICU patients are and somewhat eases when patients exhibit a willingness to recover and are less medicated.

The researchers saw that ICU patients who took part in animal therapy were able to recover faster and were reported to be happier and more involved in their treatment process. This may be because patients involved themselves with the animals; standing longer to pet the dog, for example.

Even for severely ill patients who required a physical therapist to take part in the therapy, the results were the same. Therapy dogs dramatically hastened the recovery process and allowed ICU patients to achieve their treatment goals faster.

“The data from a psychological perspective shows that building motivation to become more active, for example, is a way we can help patients,” said rehabilitation psychologist Megan Hosey. “Once you have a dog in the room staring up at you expecting a treat or a pat, it’s hard for a patient to avoid engaging.”

Data also show that even the dog’s presence provides a soothing, calming effect. ICU patients who did not pet the dog but just had the animal rest on the patient’s lap were seen to be happier and had lower pain ratings. (Related: How Pets Boost Your Mood and Keep You Healthy.)

The team is encouraged by these results and are planning to measure pain, breathing rate, and mood in future studies.

The study involved dogs registered under the Pet Partners program, which assures clients that both handlers and dogs are up to date on training. Ten patients were observed in 2017 and ranged in age from their 20s to their 80s with a variety of diagnoses. Each patient participated in at least one 20- to 30-minute visit from a therapy dog while they were in the ICU.

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