Although most health care professionals take a stethoscope with them when treating patients, Leslie Horton brings her four-footed friend, Miles, a yellow Labrador retriever.
Mrs. Horton, the animal assisted care coordinator at Inova Fairfax Hospital and Inova Heart and Vascular Institute in Falls Church, has trained Miles, a certified therapy dog, to help speed the healing of hospital patients. He also assists in rehabilitation services.
“The animal-human bond improves the overall state of being, pain and loneliness of patients,” says Mrs. Horton, a registered nurse. “The dog’s physical presence gives patients comfort.”
While dogs have long been called man’s best friend, many medical experts have begun to recognize the health benefits of animals. Beyond the hospital setting, various experts say even household pets can have a positive effect on their owners’ health.
“Do you want to pet Miles?” Mrs. Horton asks Jeffrey Fearnow, 22, of Berryville, Va. Mr. Fearnow suffers from infectious hydrocephalus, a brain injury caused by a car accident.
At Mrs. Horton’s command, Miles jumps on the bed, continuing to lick Mr. Fearnow’s hand. As he watches Miles, Mr. Fearnow’s formerly stiffened hand opens and relaxes.
“Every time Jeffrey has ever seen Miles, he has done some kind of movement that he didn’t do before,” says Jan O’Neil, Mr. Fearnow’s mother.
Animal assisted therapy reduces blood pressure in both healthy and hypertensive patients, according to a study performed at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, says Dr. Robert DiBianco, a clinical cardiologist in private practice in Takoma Park and Rockville.
The study, announced in November 2005, compared the progress of hypertension patients visited by volunteers with dogs to that of hypertension patients visited by volunteers alone.
Researchers also monitored 76 patients with heart failure, says Dr. DiBianco.
When a dog was part of the medical team, the patients’ anxiety scores dropped by 24 percent. When a human volunteer visited the patient, it just dropped 10 percent. Without visits, the patients’ conditions didn’t change, he says.
Further, the pulmonary capillary wedge pressure in heart-failure patients went down by about 10 percent when they were visited by a volunteer with a dog. When they were visited by a volunteer alone, the pressure increased 3 percent. With no visits, the pressure increased by 5 percent.
“Even a short exposure to dogs seems to bring a favorable physiological and psychological effect,” Dr. DiBianco says. “The therapy warrants serious consideration to make people happy, calmer and feel more loved.”
Dr. Bianco says the results of the study also make him reconsider the benefits of household pets. Although he doesn’t generally prescribe interaction with animals, he says he believes they can lessen a stressful environment under the right circumstances.
“I see a lot of adult patients in our practice that are trying to prevent heart disease by controlling their blood pressure and controlling their weight and controlling their diabetes,” Dr. DiBianco says. “We always say to exercise and eat well. One of the things we’ve always recognized is that those people who had a pet, it was a good influence on them. It keeps them more active and more mobile.”View Entire Story
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