Pondering the pet prescription
Everybody knows that therapy animals help improve the wellbeing of hospital patients. But when Professor Anna Chur-Hansen and her team at the University of Adelaide in Australia started rooting around in the research, it turned out there wasn’t much data to back up that truism.
“If you speak with most people, they’ll say it’s a good thing for animals such as dogs and cats to be taken into hospitals, so that patients can derive some form of therapeutic effect from their association with the animals,” Chur-Hansen, the lead author of research published recently in the journal Anthrozoös, said in a news release.
It’s not that letting patients cuddle with Fluffy or Bowser is bad. There just doesn’t seem to be much hard evidence on the benefits of therapy animals.
“The scientific world has done such a poor job of researching this field that no one can truly say what the benefits are, how they work, or whether such a situation causes problems or distress— or the exact opposite—for the animals themselves,” said ChurHansen, who heads the university’s School of Psychology.
Researchers from the university’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences also assisted with the project, which looked at studies worldwide of “animal interventions” involving children in healthcare settings.
The findings seemed to show that the benefits of therapy animals are what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would call a “known unknown.”
“The assumption is that these programs are beneficial—and from the little evidence available, they are likely to be—but no one has yet fully assessed the range of issues associated with the human-animal bond in the healthcare setting,” Chur-Hansen said.
What exactly can a visit from a therapy dog do for a patient? Australian researchers says the jury is still out on the precise measurable benefits.