Therapy Dogs Help Reduce Pain in Emergency Room Patients

A new study shows canine companions can reduce anxiety, depression and discomfort in ER patients—and increase their overall well-being

A brown and white dog visits the emergency room
Murphy, an English Springer Spaniel, participated in the study. Jane Smith via University of Sasketchewan

Therapy dogs are often employed in schools, prisons and nursing homes to help improve human health. Now, new evidence shows having these fluffy companions in the emergency room may be beneficial for the well-being of patients. 

In a study published in PLOS ONE, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan found that therapy dogs can help reduce pain, including anxiety and depression, in ER patients. 

"There is research showing that pets are an important part of our health in different ways. They motivate us, they get us up, (give us) routines, the human-animal bond," lead study author and professor at the University of Saskatchewan Colleen Dell tells CNN’s Madeline Holcombe.

Scientists conducted a clinical trial with a group of 101 patients receiving a 10-minute visit with a therapy dog and 97 patients in the control group. The research team randomized days that the therapy dog teams visited the hospital, and the other days served as a control. Those who received a therapy dog visit were asked to rate their pain, anxiety, depression and general well-being on an 11-point scale before, immediately and 20 minutes after the visit. Researchers collected data on the control group twice, with a 30 minute interval between. 

They found that 48 percent of patients who visited with a therapy dog experienced a reduction in anxiety, 43 percent reported a reduction in pain, 46 percent were less depressed and 41 percent had improved well-being, per the study. 

Can Therapy Dogs in a Hospital Reduce Patients' Pain?

"The results of the study are promising," writes Jessica Chubak, a senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute who was not involved with the research, to CNN in an email. "Our current understanding of the effects of therapy dog visits in emergency department settings is fairly limited. So, it is particularly important to have more research in this area."

Research regarding therapy dog visits “exists, and is growing but remains commonly criticized for a lack of control groupings, small sample sizes and absence of quantitative data collection,” write the authors in the paper. “The current study is designed to address these criticisms in part and add to the knowledge base and methodological rigor of the field with the contribution of a controlled trial.”

Emergency rooms themselves can contribute to patients’ pain, per the study. Constant bright lights and noise can be disruptive, slow down the recovery process and prolong pain. Long wait times can heighten perceptions of pain. 

“The Emergency Room is a hectic place, and as an ER doctor myself, I know that anything we can do to improve the patient experience is welcomed,” says study co-lead author Dr. James Stempien of the University of Saskatchewan, in a statement.  

Patients aren’t the only ones benefiting from the dogs. Before visiting patients, the dogs would often stop to say hello to workers in the nursing lounge, Stempien tells NPR’s Rina Torchinsky.

"I think it brought a smile on faces of almost all the staff they interacted with," Stempien tells the publication.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.