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Do Therapy Dogs in Hospitals Help Patients? What Does Science Say

Chantelle Fowler

By Chantelle Fowler

therapy dog

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Dr. Lauren Demos

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Animals are a source of comfort and support for many people. Any dog owner can tell you how cathartic it is to snuggle up with their pup at the end of a long, tough day. The medical field has recognized the benefits of animal therapy, and many professionals now offer animal-assisted support for their patients. Study after study shows that therapy dogs can help hospitalized patients in more than one way.

Keep reading to find the science-backed benefits of therapy dogs.

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What Are Therapy Dogs?

Therapy dogs visit hospitals, retirement homes, and hospice centers, among other places, to bring joy to the people they’re visiting. The concept of animal therapy builds on the human-animal bond, a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and animals. Interaction with a well-trained and friendly pet will help people suffering from physical and mental conditions.

Pet Therapy dog visiting hospital
Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

Does Science Prove Therapy Dogs Are Effective?

Countless scientific studies prove therapy dogs help their patients.

One study published in PLos ONE in 2018 examined the emotional and physical benefits of therapy dogs working in a pediatric oncology unit. As one can imagine, a cancer diagnosis in a young child takes a huge emotional toll on the patient and their family members. This study showed significant improvements in pediatric patients’ pain, irritation, and stress levels after being visited by a therapy dog. The children’s parents also reported significant improvements in anxiety, stress, and mental confusion. In addition, both child and parent had improvements in depression levels.

Another study looked at patients with chronic heart failure and the benefits of early ambulation alongside a therapy dog. The findings concluded that canine-assisted ambulation could decrease a patient’s hospital stay length. A similar study from 2007 shows that therapy dogs can lower anxiety levels and improve cardiopulmonary pressures in heart failure patients.

One study from 2021 showed that hospitalized children and teenagers with animal-assisted therapy had less pain and were better able to control their blood pressure.

Another study shows that they can be used in counseling and trauma response, helping to reduce treatment anxiety, and facilitating the development of a solid therapeutic rapport.

This study from 2011 looked at the efficacy of using animal-assisted therapy for patients with severe dementia. The study found that using therapy dogs resulted in decreased levels in anxiety and sadness and an increase in positive emotions and motor activity.

This is just a small sampling of the many science-backed benefits of using therapy dogs for sick patients.

therapy dog visiting young female patient in hospital
Photo Credit: hospital_Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

What Do Therapy Dogs Do?

Therapy dogs aim to improve a patient’s emotional well-being and physical health. They provide many types of support depending on the facility they work in.

Therapy dogs working in a hospital will visit with the patients and may even participate in their physical therapy program. Their handlers will work alongside the patient’s doctor to help them achieve their therapy goals.

These working dogs can help improve patient motor skills and movement, as petting is a great exercise. They can also enhance patient verbal communication as animals provide a fantastic ice breaker.

Even the mere presence of an animal in a hospital setting can break up the monotony and reduce boredom.

therapy dog old man in wheelchair
Photo Credit: iofoto, Shutterstock

The Types of Animal Therapy

As with service dogs, many types of animal therapy options are available. The three most common are:

Therapeutic visitations. The therapy dog’s owner will take them to the healthcare facility to visit the patients. This is the most common type of animal therapy.

Animal-assisted therapy. The therapy dog becomes actively involved in the patient’s care program. For example, they may help occupational and physical therapists improve patient limb mobility and fine motor skills.

Facility therapy. These therapy pets live in the care center alongside the patients. They are trained to monitor and engage with them.

golden retriever as therapy dog
Photo Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Are Therapy Dogs Service or Emotional Support Animals?

Though some people use the terms interchangeably, service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals all serve different purposes. Service dogs undergo rigorous training to perform quantifiable tasks to ease their owner’s disabilities. Therapy dogs are certified to visit various centers to visit people in need. However, they don’t perform essential duties and don’t have public access rights like service dogs. Emotional support animals are companion animals that help their owners cope with emotional challenges and mental health conditions.

Girl with emotional support dog
Image Credit: Anagarcia, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

Therapy dogs provide an immensely beneficial service to hospitalized patients. Medical professionals may recommend animal therapy for various conditions, but one thing is clear, therapy dogs can help patients both mentally and physically. After all, their mere presence in a hospital setting can improve patients’ lives, and that’s before they even interact with one another.

Featured Image Credit: Ryan Stone, Unsplash

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