Research Update

Therapy dog visits are powerful medicine for people with cancer getting chemotherapy
We surveyed people receiving therapy dog visits over 6 months at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA and the results were published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Most visits were made to a cancer infusion center where people were receiving chemotherapy. All people completing the surveys had an overall positive view for the visit. People reported receiving much to great benefit for a wide range of symptoms:

  • About 90 percent or more reported much to great benefit for reduced stress, improved mood, and increased relaxation
  • Around 80 percent reported reduced worry and improved attitude
  • Half found the visit decreased their sense of loneliness and isolation
  • About one-third reported the visit resulted in decreased pain, improved sleep, and improved appetite

Interestingly, benefits were the same for men and women, people visited at the cancer center or other parts of the hospital, people living with a dog or those who had never owned a dog, and people who considered themselves to be a “dog” person or not. This study highlights the incredible impact therapy dog visits can make for people struggling with difficult health problems, including cancer.

Therapy dogs in pain management
- Animal-assisted therapy at an outpatient pain management clinic, published in the journal Pain Medicine January 2012. In this study, pain, distress, and fatigue were evaluated in individuals at a chronic pain clinic who could choose to spend waiting time in a room with a therapy dog or in a traditional doctor’s office waiting room with a television and magazines. Results were compared from 295 therapy dog visits and 96 waiting room visits. Significant improvements were reported for pain, fatigue, mood, and other measures of distress among patients after the therapy dog visit but not the waiting room control, with clinically meaningful pain relief occurring in 23% after the therapy dog visit and 4% in the waiting room control. Significant improvements were likewise seen after therapy dog visits for family/friends and staff. These data were also presented at the 2012 World Institute of Pain meeting, with a summary published in the journal Pain Practice. This study was highlighted on Wikipedia’s Animal-Assisted Therapy page.

- A similar study evaluated the benefits of adding a therapy dog to a waiting room for patients with fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia, a disabling chronic pain condition that also includes widespread pain, fatigue, sleep disturbance, bowel problems, poor concentration, and depression. These data were presented at the 2012 American Academy of Pain Management meeting and will be published as the article Impact of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Outpatients with Fibromyalgia in the journal Pain Medicine in 2013. Data were evaluated from 106 therapy dog visits and 49 similar waiting room controls. Average intervention duration was 12 minutes for the therapy dog visit and 17 minutes for the waiting room control. Clinically meaningful pain relief occurred in 34% after the therapy dog visit and 4% in the waiting room control.

Migraine alert dogs
- Medical detection dogs are a special type of service dog that identifies medical symptoms and alerts a human to an impending problem. For example, patients with diabetes can use medical alerting dogs to notify them about drops in blood sugar levels before the drop becomes serious enough to cause symptoms. Altering behavior helps the person to intervene when body changes are less severe to prevent the development of serious and disabling symptoms. A series of migraine sufferers who identified migraine alerting behavior in their dogs was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in February. Unique alerting behaviors were consistently identified within minutes to 24 hours before the onset of migraine symptoms. A range of dog breeds was represented and alerting behaviors were recognized in puppies as well as adult dogs, typically within months of the dog first starting to live with the individuals with migraines. Behaviors included increased attentiveness, vocalizations, and pawing at the migraineur.
- A large survey of over 1000 migraine sufferers who live with dogs was completed earlier this year to further explore the frequency of migraine alerting behavior in companion dogs. Data were published by the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and were presented at the 2012 European Federation of Neurological Societies.

Therapy dogs for cancer patients
- My new book, Therapy Dogs in Cancer Care: A Valuable Complementary Treatment, was released in May. The journal Current Pain and Headache Reports also published my article titled, “Complementary Medicine in Cancer Care: Adding A Therapy Dog to the Team.” Working to get the word out about the incredible benefit patients can receive from therapy dog visits. Both of my therapy dogs visit cancer centers and I stand back in awe as I watch them work their healing magic.

American Academy of Pain Management recognizes Pitt therapy dog research
The American Academy of Pain Management selected our study, “Animal-assisted therapy at an outpatient pain management clinic” that had been published in the journal Pain Medicine (January 2012, volume 13, issue 1, pages45-57) to be included in the Academy’s e-newsletter, Currents: Pain Management News and Research. Our study was selected by Academy researchers who review thousands of journal abstracts from National Library of Medicine databases and other sources to select those that will be most useful to practitioners. Soon more doctors everywhere will discover the power of wagging tails!

2 Responses to “Research Update”
  1. 04.01.2013

    Hi Dr. Marcus – I got your therapy dog handler survey through one of the volunteer groups my dog and I work with – Heart Pet Programs. I filled it out and also looked through your website. It is very informative and exciting as I believe the time of the therapy dog has finally come. Through your research and books people can see what we already know – our lives are enriched by our friends with paws.

    I am a social worker and in addition to volunteering, Fozzie assists me in my private practice. We have developed a niche of working with children to help them overcome their fear of dogs. It’s a great blend between my clinical experience and love of all animals. Best of luck with your continuing research.

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Books by Dr. Marcus

Fit as Fido
A Doctor's Guide to Dog Therapy and Healing: The Power of Wagging Tails
Therapy Dogs in Cancer Care: A Valuable Complementary Treatment
Ever Faithful: Your Dog Can Help You Fight Cancer