Pain is the main reason people attend an emergency department. Our study examined the effect of a therapy dog visit on reducing patient pain in an ED. We found that pain improved after the dog visit compared to no change in control patients. Patient anxiety, depression, and well-being also improved. These findings help to establish the potential value of therapy dogs in an emergency setting.
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published on Apr 14, 2023
The overwhelming majority of people attend a hospital ED for pain. The harsh ED environment, including long wait times and stark lighting, has been shown to increase patients’ perceived pain.
In 2015, Saskatoon St. John Ambulance therapy dogs and their human handlers were the first to visit ED patients in Canada. Therapy dog Murphy, the first visiting dog, was nicknamed “Dr. Murphy” by Royal University Hospital (RUH) staff because he was able to calm a patient long enough to receive treatment. At least eight additional EDs across the country have since introduced therapy dogs. Therapy dogs have been shown to reduce people’s pain and anxiety in various hospital settings. However, few studies exist in an ED.
There is a growing need for effective, low-cost solutions to pain management in EDs. A preliminary survey of ED patients suggested that bringing therapy dogs to visit patients in the RUH ED had the potential to increase patient comfort, decrease stress, and reduce pain. A follow-up case study with 124 patients found that a therapy dog visit increased patients’ perceived comfort, decreased their stress, and was a welcome distraction. Our team decided to take the science one step further and do a controlled clinical trial, a type of study design commonly used to test patient interventions and medications.
Our novel study was held five days per week for four months in the Fall of 2019. Seven therapy dog teams visited the ED 2-3 days per week for data collection, and patient data was gathered without a dog for the remaining 1-2 days. The teams were present for 2-3 hours each day. Patients who were physically and mentally capable were asked to take part in the study, which reached a sample of 101 control participants and 97 therapy dog participants. A member of our research team asked patients visiting with a therapy dog for 10 minutes to rate their pain, anxiety, depression, and well-being on an 11-point scale (0-11) before, immediately after, and 20 minutes after their visit. For the control group that did not visit with a therapy dog, recorded data was the same, except they were asked only at the initial visit and then 20 minutes later.
To understand if therapy dogs reduce patient pain in an ED setting, we looked at the difference in reported pain, anxiety, depression, and well-being from the group that visited with a therapy dog and compared these findings to the control group. We found that the group that met the dogs reported a 0.9 decrease in pain on a scale of 0 to 11. They also reported their anxiety and depression dropped by 1.13 and 0.72, respectively, while their well-being increased by 0.87 on the scale. This means that participants who met the dogs reported a clinically significant decrease in pain, anxiety and depression, and a significant increase in well-being. On the other hand, participants in the control group reported no change in their pain, and less significant changes in the other parameters.
Exploring creative, low-cost and non-pharmaceutical relief for patients in pain is important. The findings of this study suggest that an animal-assisted intervention has the potential to not only positively affect the overall well-being of patients in a hospital setting but specifically aid in their treatment of pain. Further research needs to be done to determine how and why therapy dogs decrease patient pain. For example, are the dogs relieving pain as a distraction from the ED environment? Are they eliciting happy memories for patients of a previous time with animals? Is something happening with a patient’s central nervous system and hormone levels that physically reduces their feelings of pain? We now have enough evidence to thoroughly consider the potential value of therapy dogs visiting in additional emergency settings.
Carey, B., Dell, C.A., Stempien, J., Tupper, S., Rohr, B., Carr, E., Cruz, M., Acoose, S., Butt, P., Broberg, L. and Collard, L. (2022). Outcomes of a controlled trial with visiting therapy dog teams on pain in adults in an emergency department. PloS one, 17(3), p.e0262599.