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Funded Study May Prove Therapy Dogs Help Children Who Need Surgery


A three-year study funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) will be taking place at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in order to determine if spending time with a dog before surgery can help children receive less sedation before the procedure.

The $79,000 grant will help the university discover how spending 20 minutes with a therapy dog before their procedure affects children aged 2-17 compared to children who use an iPad for 20 minutes before the procedure. The study expects to find that animal-assisted therapy helps children need lower doses of sedation.

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

AAT uses animals to help provide therapy to a wide variety of patient types. These animals could be anything from the pet of your veterinarian in Nashville to a service animal. AAT includes helping patients improve social skills, emotional well-being, physical challenges, and can even help patients improve mental health. There are a wide variety of animals used and a large variety of locations used for AAT.

These animals need a veterinarian exam before they can be qualified to be trained as AAT animals. Institutions such as schools, hospitals, and even prisons and nursing homes can all take part in AAT for residents.

Group or individual therapy sessions in Nashville happen with AAT and a therapist who specializes in AAT. These therapy sessions are typically planned and use strategies as well as client goals in order to achieve the desired outcome. Animals used in AAT are properly trained and certified as healthy by a vet in order to help clients.

Current Research Shows Animals Calm People

Research that exists about AAT shows that therapy dogs used in hospitals can help comfort patients in addition to lessening stress and anxiety. This has been particularly helpful to heart patients, as research shows spending just over ten minutes with a therapy dog can improve heart and lung function! Research also shows that animals can not only calm people, but can improve confidence in people with mental health disorders as well as autism spectrum disorder.

AAT is typically used in hospitals to help people better deal with the stress of a serious diagnosis or when receiving treatment for an illness or disease. The outcome of this study by the Tennessee Vet College, however, is to show that children who need surgery will need lesser doses of sedation after visiting with a therapy dog for 20 minutes.

Dr. Judy Torchia, lead veterinarian at Nippers Corner Pet Medical Center in Nashville Tennessee has seen amazing results with AAT and the human-animal bond to help patients. "I have had dogs of my own that were certified therapy dogs. I can tell you hundreds of stories of how people reacted to the love and attention the dogs gave them.  One elderly man with cancer just loved my dog, Casey, a big Golden Retriever who visited the nursing home about twice a month.  Casey would put his head on the bed and the man would pet him and talk to him. 

The man's family was often there and would talk about pets he had in years past.  As weeks went on, the man was weak but would always manage a smile and a pet for Casey.  When the man died the family asked if they could display a photo of Casey with the man at his funeral. They thanked me for the opportunity their dad and grandfather had to continue to bond with such a wonderful dog.

I have several clients who have therapy dogs and one even is getting her cat certified!  I have many clients tell me they would be lost without their pet.” 

What Is the Expected Outcome of the Study?

After spending 20 minutes with the dog before their procedure, doctors will look at the heart rate and blood pressure of the patient and compare what levels of sedation were used, both for the children in Nashville who spent the 20 minutes with the dog and the children who spent the prior 20 minutes on an iPad.

HABRI expects that the children in Nashville who spent time with the therapy dog will have much less anxiety and won’t need the same level of sedation as the other children. Veterinarian Julia Albright and vet Marcy Souza will be co-investigators in the study.

Want to Learn More?

Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee (HABIT) allows animals from all over Tennessee, including Nashville, to work in volunteer programs. You can get involved as long as your pet has had an exam by a veterinarian in Nashville and completes the required training.

AAT can help patients from Nashville to Knoxville to require less sedation, heal faster, and boost their mood. Learn more about how you can get involved and stay tuned for the results of the three-year study by the University of Tennessee!

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