"For the first time, it quantifiably proves there are real social benefits to the animal-patient bond. It moves assisted animal therapy beyond anecdotal evidence into real science," said researcher William Banks, M.D., professor of geriatrics in the department of internal medicine and professor of pharmacological and physiological science at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
"It's not that the animals have magic vibes coming out of them," Banks said. "It's a quality of life issue. It's about giving people access to what they like and enjoy. The patients we studied were those who said they wanted to interact with a pet. For those patients, spending time with a dog humanized and helped transform the nursing home into a home."
Everyone who participated in the study said he or she would like to own a pet, but currently was prevented from doing so. More than 95 percent said they were responsible for caring for a pet as young children.
"Our study found that many residents in nursing homes have a strong life-history of a relationship with pets as an intimate part of their emotional support system and, if given a choice, would continue that relationship," said Banks, who is also a staff physician at Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
During the six-week study, a researcher brought a dog, which had passed a veterinarian's physical, to visit nursing home patients in their rooms once a week. Although the dog was kept on a leash, patients could hold, stroke, groom, walk, talk to and play with the animal. The researcher avoided socializing with the patient by confining remarks to a script at the beginning of each session.