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Dogs help hearts heal, study shows
The Associated Press
DALLAS — Charles Denson's face brightens as a speckled Australian shepherd named Bart cuddles next to him while he rests in his hospital bed.
"You've got a pretty coat," the 51-year-old heart patient says while stroking Bart's soft fur.
New research indicates that hospitals that use such pet therapy sessions aren't barking up the wrong tree. The novel study, presented Tuesday at an American Heart Association meeting, is one of the first to use scientific measurements to document that therapeutic dogs lower anxiety, stress and heart and lung pressure among heart-failure patients.
"You can see it on their face; first you see a smile, and then you see the worries of the world roll off their shoulders," said Kathie Cole, a nurse at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center who led the study.
Leslie Kern, director of cardiac research for the heart institute at Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif., said such visits help make patients' lives more normal.
"I'm not surprised at all that something that makes people feel good also ... has measurable physiological effects," said Dr. Marc Gillinov, a cardiac surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the study.
Cole and her colleagues studied 76 heart-failure patients — average age 57 — who got either a visit from a volunteer, a volunteer plus a dog or no visit. The scientists measured patients' physiological responses before, during and after the visits.
Anxiety as measured by a standard rating scale dropped 24 percent for those visited by the dog and volunteer team, but by only 10 percent for those visited by just a volunteer. The scores for the group with no visit remained the same.
Levels of epinephrine, a hormone the body makes when under stress, dropped about 17 percent in patients visited by a person and a dog, and 2 percent in those visited just by a person. But levels rose about 7 percent in the group that didn't get visitors.
Heart pressure dropped 10 percent after the visit by the volunteer and dog. It increased 3 percent for those visited by a volunteer and 5 percent for those who got no visit. Lung pressure declined 5 percent for those visited by a dog and a volunteer. It rose in the other two groups.
The dogs used in the study were carefully screened at UCLA and had to pass a behavior test and checkup by a veterinarian, Cole said. Patients were also asked if they liked dogs and wanted to be part of the study, which was funded by the Pet Care Trust Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the value of animals in society.
The study "helps to legitimize that the intervention is more than something nice and something extra to do for the patient, that it has physiologic benefit," said Janet Parkosewich, a cardiac nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Conn., who attended the study presentation Tuesday.
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