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Therapy dogs a drug-free alternative for ER anxiety?


Cali, a Goldendoodle, was one of the therapy dogs used in the study.

A trip to the emergency room can be a high-stress experience for a patient. At a time when physicians have grown increasingly wary of using medications to treat anxiety, Indiana University School of Medicine researchers think that man’s best friend could be the answer.

A team of researchers led by Jeffrey A. Kline, MD, Vice Chair of Research at the IU School of Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine, conducted a study to see if therapy dogs may provide an alternative solution to anxiety medication.

While other studies have shown therapy dogs are helpful in clinical settings, this is the first conducted in an emergency department. Multidisciplinary open access journal PLOS ONE published its findings.

Jeffrey A. Kline, MD

The study took place at Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Health in downtown Indianapolis, which has an existing animal therapy program managed by one of the study’s co-authors, Michelle A. Fisher, RN. Compared with usual care, exposure to a therapy dog reduced patient anxiety by 35 percent. Just 1 in 40 patients exposed to a therapy dog were prescribed an opioid pain medication while in the emergency department, compared with 7 in 40 in the usual care group. The dogs consistently elicited a positive change in body language and mood.

This work was done in collaboration with Alan Beck, ScD, from the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond.

“This study not only adds to what is known about the value of pet contact but documents the effect in a much needed therapeutic setting—the emergency department,” Beck said.

Emergency departments have a great need for the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, but it would raise additional challenges.

“There would need to be a significant increase in the number of certified therapy dogs and dog handlers to meet the needs of ER patients,” Kline said. “At present, many therapy dog handlers are volunteers. Additionally, emergency departments would need to address concerns including dog phobias, allergies and hygiene.”

However, the demand for therapy dogs is high—93 percent of emergency department patients with moderate or higher anxiety levels were interested in seeing one, according to the study. Researchers said they believe animal-assisted therapy is an avenue worth exploring, as a means to reduce anxiety without medication while improving the overall patient experience.

The study is supported by the Lilly Endowment Indiana Physician Scientist Initiative. The content is solely the responsibility of Indiana University School of Medicine and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Lilly Endowment.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Nikki Livingston

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Nikki Livingston is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Faculty Affairs, Professional Development, and Diversity. She earned a B.A. in Theatre Arts and Drama at Spelman College. Nikki's unique background in graphic design, copywriting, project management, and digital marketing enables her to support communication efforts through a wide variety of mediums. She is passionate about mission-driven storytelling and helping organizations connect with their communities.