"For the first time, it quantifiably proves there are real social benefits to the animal-patient bond. It moves assisted animal therapy beyond anecdotal evidence into real science," said researcher William Banks, M.D., professor of geriatrics in the department of internal medicine and professor of pharmacological and physiological science at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
"It's not that the animals have magic vibes coming out of them," Banks said. "It's a quality of life issue. It's about giving people access to what they like and enjoy. The patients we studied were those who said they wanted to interact with a pet. For those patients, spending time with a dog humanized and helped transform the nursing home into a home."
Everyone who participated in the study said he or she would like to own a pet, but currently was prevented from doing so. More than 95 percent said they were responsible for caring for a pet as young children.
"Our study found that many residents in nursing homes have a strong life-history of a relationship with pets as an intimate part of their emotional support system and, if given a choice, would continue that relationship," said Banks, who is also a staff physician at Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
During the six-week study, a researcher brought a dog, which had passed a veterinarian's physical, to visit nursing home patients in their rooms once a week. Although the dog was kept on a leash, patients could hold, stroke, groom, walk, talk to and play with the animal. The researcher avoided socializing with the patient by confining remarks to a script at the beginning of each session.
"It didn't seem to make a lot of difference how long the exposure was," Banks said. "Shorter visits typically were better because the patients got physically tired after 60 minutes.
"We found spending a half-hour a week for six weeks with an animal significantly reduced loneliness. The results show that animal assisted therapy is effective in combating loneliness in long-term care facilities."
The benefits of allowing patients who love animals to spend time with them might be even greater than quantified in the study, Banks added. Pets tend to bring people together and encourage them to socialize.
"Have you ever walked a dog in the park? Even without doing anything, the dog can act as a catalyst and as an ice-breaker by encouraging people to socialize."
The implications of the research can improve the quality of life for pet-lovers who live in nursing homes. "Animals make former pet-owners who live in nursing homes feel less lonely. They are an integral part of folks' lives. Many people grew up with animals and feel they are missing something. The research shows what we have long suspected - the availability of pets fills a void."
The department of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University was ranked 7th in the country in last year's U.S. News & World Report listing of America's best hospitals and specialties. Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first M.D. degree west of the Mississippi River. Saint Louis University School of Medicine is a pioneer in geriatric medicine, organ transplantation, chronic disease prevention, cardiovascular disease, neurosciences and vaccine research, among others. The School of Medicine trains physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health services on a local, national and international level.
Editor's note: For more information, call Nancy Solomon, Saint Louis University Health Sciences Center media relations, at (314) 977-8017.