Therapy Dog Visit Can Improve Physiological Health of Fibromyalgia Patients, Study Shows

Therapy Dog Visit Can Improve Physiological Health of Fibromyalgia Patients, Study Shows

A single 20-minute session with a therapy dog significantly improves the physical and mental health of people with fibromyalgia, according to a collaborative study between the Mayo Clinic and pet food company Purina.

The results also showed that such sessions do not negatively impact the well-being of the dogs, and may even help them be more relaxed.

“The Better Together study showed therapy animals could be an evidence-based treatment option, and healthcare professionals should strongly consider utilizing animal-assisted activity in the care of their patients with fibromyalgia,” Arya Mohabbat, MD, assistant professor of medicine and the project’s lead researcher from the Mayo Clinic, said in a press release.

Despite some therapeutic advances in the management of fibromyalgia, most patients continue to experience chronic symptoms and look for non-conventional strategies, including animal-assisted activity.

Using animals in therapy has been shown benefit people with chronic illnesses, by easing pain, anxiety, fear, and mental health symptoms. Notably, a previous study showed that brief therapy dog visits lessened pain and emotional distress in people with fibromyalgia.

However, most studies of therapy animals “only collect self-reported subjective measures, such as pain, fatigue, and emotional state ratings via questionnaires and do not incorporate any physiological data to support or corroborate their claims,” the researchers wrote.

In addition, the impact of animal-assisted activity or therapy sessions on the well-being of therapy dogs remains unclear.

Therefore, Mayo Clinic and Purina designed the Better Together study to evaluate the effects of a 20-minute therapy dog session in both fibromyalgia patients and therapy dogs using several non-invasive physiological biomarkers of stress and well-being.

These biomarkers included the salivary levels of the oxytocin hormone (associated with social bonding) and the stress-hormone cortisol, ear temperatures — associated with brain activity and emotional changes — and various heart parameters, which reflect a person’s emotional state.

The study involved 221 fibromyalgia patients (204 women and 17 men, mean age nearly 44) enrolled in the Mayo Clinic Fibromyalgia Treatment Program and 19 pet therapy teams (dog and owner) who volunteered at the clinic on a regular basis. The therapy dogs — varying in breed, age, and size — were part of Mayo’s Caring Canine Program.

Patients were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The treatment group consisted of 111 patients who underwent a 20-minute session with a therapy dog and owner. The control group of 110 patients had a 20-minute session with the owner only. All study interactions took place in an exam room in the clinic’s Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Clinic.

The sub-study, which focused on the session’s impact on patients, was titled “The Impact of a 20-Minute Animal-Assisted Activity Session on the Physiological and Emotional States in Patients With Fibromyalgia,” and published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Here, the researchers analyzed physiological biomarkers in patients before and after the session, as well as results from standardized pain and mood questionnaires taken after the sessions. No significant differences in age, sex, ethnicity, or other demographic parameters were seen between the two patient groups.

Results showed that while both human-human and human-animal interactions resulted in positive impacts in most parameters, larger and more positive changes were observed in the treatment group.

Patients undergoing a session with a therapy dog and its owner reported fewer negative emotions and more positive ones, resulting in a better mood and a reduction in fibromyalgia symptoms (including pain), compared with those in the control group.

In addition, all physiological biomarkers showed a trend toward a more positive emotional state following a therapy dog session, except for cortisol, whose levels were unchanged in both groups.

The lack of changes in cortisol levels may be associated with a short time window between the session and sample collection, since “it has been previously hypothesized that significant changes in salivary cortisol could have a lag time of up to 45 minutes after an intervention/session,” the researchers wrote.

“Our results suggest that a 20-minute AAA [animal-assisted activity] in an outpatient setting can significantly and positively impact the physical and mental health of patients with FM [fibromyalgia],” the team added. “Health care professionals should strongly consider using AAA in the care of their patients with FM.”

Another sub-study, focused on the sessions’ impact on the therapy dogs, was titled “Physiological State of Therapy Dogs during Animal-Assisted Activities in an Outpatient Setting” and published in the journal Animals.

An analysis before and after the sessions showed that most physiological biomarkers were unchanged, suggesting no signs of negative effects on the animals’ emotional state.

Notably, observed significant changes in ear temperature and heart rate were consistent with a more relaxed or calm state at the end of the sessions.

Behavioral observations would have provided additional information about the extent and nature of dog-patient interactions and could have helped better interpret the data, the scientists said.

“We need to expand our understanding of how animal-assisted activity impacts therapy dog’s well-being, and this sizeable study with 19 dogs of various breeds provided solid evidence that animal-assisted activity done in the right condition does not have negative impacts on well-trained therapy dogs,” said François Martin, PhD, the project’s lead Purina scientist and head of the company’s applied behavior and welfare research section.

“This only encourages us to do more research to continue to demonstrate the power of the human-animal bond on people while ensuring assistance animals also experience positive wellness as a result of their work,” he added.