Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Better Than a Pill

Pet Column for the week of September 8, 2008

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Patients stricken with congestive heart failure and confined to a hospital bed are traditionally prescribed several medications to help control the disease. One new treatment has recently made headlines in its ability to decrease high blood pressure, significantly lower blood epinephrine levels (the fight or flight hormone) and lessen anxiety. The only catch is this new "drug" doesn't come in the form of a pill; it is merely a ten-minute petting session with a dog, according to a new study released by the University of California.

Animal owners have known for years that pets improve their quality of life and combat loneliness, but medical researchers had remained skeptical until recently. Today, more research is being conducted in the field of AAT, or animal assisted therapy.

Mary Kelm is an Assistant Dean in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois. Every summer she takes a group of veterinary students and their dogs to the juvenile detention center in Urbana, IL. What started out years ago as an informative talk on dog fighting for the young inmates, unexpectedly turned into a therapeutic event as well. "For a few minutes they can be regular kids again," she says.

Kelm explains that when she asks the young inmates, who range in age from 13-18, if they have ever seen a dog fight, they all unequivocally reply, "Oh yeah," reflecting that it was part of their everyday life living in urban areas. She lets the teens talk about what they have seen and how exciting it had been for them to watch before she drops the bomb. While the inmates are petting the several dogs wandering around the room she asks, "So how do you think the dog feels in the fight?"

After that the room falls silent. Watching these children interact with the dogs, "that's when you see that they are really just kids that have lived in a horrible environment. For one hour, these tough inmates turn sweet," she explains.

The veterinary school fraternity, known as OTS, also visits a local nursing home every month with students and their pets. Elizabeth is a second year veterinary student who brings her dog, Lexie, on the trips.

"Everyone seems to really enjoy the interaction and invariably relate stories of their past pets," mentions Elizabeth. "We meet a lot of interesting people that enjoy playing with our pets, but they also really like storytelling or having a conversation."

New studies show having a dog in a nursing home can reverse loneliness, increase residents' self esteem, and has the added benefit of making even withdrawn people come out of their shell to chat. AAT is also now being used to help abused children and those with psychiatric disorders, where it has shown to significantly increase their coping abilities and self-efficacy.

The full benefits of AAT are yet to be realized, but researchers have made quite a bit of progress. With this new study on heart failure patients clearly showing dogs have an effect both on a patient's psychiatric well being, and even more surprisingly, their physiological well being, who knows what other diseases one good dog and a good petting can cure.

For more information visit the University of Minnesotas Web page on animal assisted therapy ( If you are interested in doing AAT with your pet it is imperative that it be up to date on vaccinations and receive a behavioral exam qualifying it for therapeutic use. As always, contact your local veterinarian if you have questions.