Petting a dog can help anxious patients awaiting treatment in casualty departments to relax, according to research carried out by a team from the University of Saskatchewan, in Canada.

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“[Casualty] departments are hectic and confusing places,” says Professor Colleen Dell, who co-led the research. “Most people waiting for treatment feel nervous and waiting can increase their pain… Our study showed a noticeable improvement in patients’ moods after interacting with a therapy dog.”

The stress-reducing effects of therapy dogs have already been put to use in hospital wards to help patients who are recuperating or recovering from surgery. There is growing evidence to suggest interacting with the canines not only reduces a patient’s anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure, but also increases their production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of pleasure and well-being.

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With waiting times consistently high in emergency departments, Prof Dell believes therapy dogs may have a role to play in comforting patients who are experiencing distress or pain.

The 124 patients who took part in the study met the dog (a spaniel called Murphy) for between 10 and 30 minutes. The group included people who were suffering from cardiac complaints, fractures, psychiatric issues, and chronic pain.

The patients filled out questionnaires after their encounter with Murphy and the overwhelming majority of their answers suggested they felt better as a result of the meeting ­– 80 per cent of them said they felt happier and calmer.

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Jane Smith, Murphy’s handler, said it is clear he enjoys meeting the patients too. “When Murphy enters the emergency department, the mood changes quickly. You can see patients, doctors and staff smiling, even before he actually visits anyone,” she said. “During the visits he looks at patients with big, brown eyes, before settling in to enjoy the cuddles. Sometimes, Murphy needs extra encouragement to leave a patient. It’s actually hard to tell who enjoys the visit more.”

This study has led to Prof Dell and her team being awarded a grant of $20,000 (a little over £11,000) from the Royal University Hospital Foundation, in Saskatoon, to undertake further research into the effect of therapy dog visits to patients in casualty departments.


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