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Therapy dogs can help relieve pain in the ER

In this Nov. 24, 2016 photo, Jaqueline Castro, a 27-year-old being treated for a degenerative disease, plays with Schnauzer dog named Paola at the Support Hospital of Brasilia, Brazil. The program was set up to help patients with advanced cancer and those living with chronic diseases or recovering from trauma. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Jaqueline Castro plays with a Schnauzer named Paola at the Support Hospital of Brasilia, Brazil, on Nov. 24, 2016, as part of program set up to help patients with chronic diseases or recovering from trauma.

Therapy dogs have long visited nursing homes and schools — even disaster sites — offering comfort to humans. A new study shows that a 10-minute visit from a therapy dog can help relieve patients' pain in the emergency room.

The research from the University of Saskatchewan, published in the journal PLOS on Wednesday, found that ER patients who were visited by a therapy dog reported less pain than those who weren't.

"Therapy dogs themselves ... they're just really friendly, family pets that are so excited to visit with people and in places where you don't typically have a pet," Dr. Colleen Dell, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and one of the study authors, told NPR. "And just going into the emergency department was a natural."

In a controlled trial, researchers asked more than 200 patients to report their pain levels. One group of patients received a 10-minute visit from a therapy dog and the other group did not. After the dog visit, researchers asked patients in both groups to report their pain levels again.

Those who spent 10 minutes with the dog reported less pain, the study found.

Study co-leads, Dell and emergency room physician Dr. James Stempien, say the findings were not surprising.

Many have experienced benefits from therapy dogs, but this study clinically proves them, said Dell, herself a therapy dog handler.

Dell, who has researched Indigenous health and mental health, added that the use of therapy dogs echoes Indigenous approaches to health, which are much more holistic and concerned with animals and the land.

Many cultures share this philosophy, she said, but it's not dominant in Western culture. This controlled trial "is speaking Western language," which could mean that more people will listen, she said.

Stempien, the provincial head of emergency medicine at the Saskatchewan Health Authority and an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, has seen the dogs in action at the hospital where he works.

Prior to the pandemic, a therapy dog would visit multiple times a week. During visits, the dog would often make a stop in the nursing lounge before visiting with patients.

"I think it brought a smile on faces of almost all the staff they interacted with," Stempien told NPR.

But the people aren't the only ones getting something out of this, Dell said.

Therapy dogs "love their job, they love people," she said. "We need more research on this, but we know that they're getting out of it as well as giving. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.