- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

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.”

Although most animals can meet a need for friendship, owners need to care adequately for the pets, says Dr. Martin Chin, vice chairman of psychiatry at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.

If patients are too sick to take care of a pet, they shouldn’t own one, he says. Animals visiting hospitals are required to be clean and well-groomed.

“Animals are not for everyone,” Dr. Chin says. “They are a responsibility. They are other living things that need to go to the vet, that need to be walked.”

Despite the needs of caring for animals, interacting with dogs even can help some patients with their speech, says Amy Cook, certified therapy and recreation specialist and animal assisted therapy coordinator at Inova Rehabilitation Center at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital south of Alexandria.

There are eight dogs in the program at the hospital, including Ms. Cook’s old English sheepdog, Hobo. Patients usually are asked to give the dogs commands.

“It reinforces the patient being able to say a word, much more than a speech therapist trying to articulate different words,” Ms. Cook says. “For our patients, it’s a real give-and-take relationship.”

Besides helping with speech, the dogs also may help patients with movement. If a patient has trouble turning from side to side, for example, he or she may successfully make difficult movements in an attempt to pet a dog, Ms. Cook says.

“There is nothing that can substitute therapy with dogs,” she adds. “People who will refuse to go to therapy will often go because one of the dogs will be there.”

The animals frequently draw patients from their hospital rooms, says Michelle Cohen of Laurel, a volunteer trainer for National Capital Therapy Dogs Inc.

The nonprofit organization has 50 volunteer teams in the Baltimore-Washington region that work with various health care institutions, schools, nursing homes and children’s homes. Volunteers usually own dogs or cats. Mrs. Cohen and her husband, Mark, own two beagles, Annabelle and Brady.

“At the hospitals, we’ve had people come out of their rooms for the first time in weeks to see the dogs,” Mrs. Cohen says. “This one gentleman shuffled all the way down the hallway, patted the dogs and shuffled all the way back. We didn’t think anything of it until the nurse came flying down the hall, saying, ‘That’s the first time he came out of his room.’”

One little boy got out of his wheelchair for the first time when he wanted to give Brady a treat, she says. The boy walked almost 50 feet, all the way across the room and back.

“The presence of animals is relaxing,” Mrs. Cohen says. “It’s motivational. It just helps people’s health.”

The patients usually focus on the animal instead of the pain, says Holly Parker, recreational therapist in the Rehabilitation Medicine Department of the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Fifteen volunteer teams from National Capital Therapy Dogs Inc. work at the medical institution under a recreational therapist.

“We have seen patients that haven’t responded to other intervention have significant responses to dogs,” Mrs. Parker says. “It’s those little sort of steps forward that make this such an important part of our program.”

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