Friday, November 6, 2009

DCC: Nursing Home Visits from Fido Have Lasting Benefit

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By Crystal Phend, Staff Writer, MedPage Today

Reviewed by Robert Jasmer, MD; Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco . Earn CME/CE creditfor reading medical news

GARDEN GROVE, Calif -- If dementia patients living in a nursing home are visited by a dog, they tend to laugh, smile, and respond more for weeks to come, researchers said

Group interaction with a therapy dog increased social behavior during the intervention with effects maintained over the next six weeks, Ann-Marie Wordley, a Ph.D. student at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and colleagues found.

These preliminary results from a small controlled trial suggest that the benefits of animal-assisted therapy linger longer than anticipated, the researchers reported at the Alzheimer's Association Dementia Care Conference here.

"The dog did make quite a difference," Wordley said. "One of the hardest things for residents is leaving their pet behind."

Furry visitors and even resident pets are fairly well accepted in the U.S., but studies had not looked at maintenance of the effects nor controlled for the potential benefit of interaction with animal handlers, Wordley said.

So her group prospectively studied 30 residents of a residential care facility in southern Australia. Seven were classified as "sundowners," who have particularly challenging behavior problems in the evening.

Participants were observed during a four-week run-in period followed by six weeks of animal-assisted therapy and another six weeks of observation without intervention.

The therapy consisted of a one-hour group session twice a week with the activities therapist, two visiting dog handlers, and one of three visiting dogs -- a golden retriever and two border collies. All three dogs were assessed for temperament and suitability to the nursing home environment.

Residents could pat and interact with the dog as the handler walked it around the group.

Nursing home staff completed the Revised Memory and Behavior Problems Checklist after each session and at the end of each week.

Prosocial behavior -- eye contact, smiling, verbal communication, and other responsiveness -- increased from a mean score of about 14 during the baseline period to 21 during the intervention and remained at an average of 20 during follow-up.

Memory problems among participants decreased from an average 16 at baseline to seven during the intervention and remained at a score of nine over the next six weeks.

The benefit of animal-assisted therapy on disruptive behavior did not last as long. It improved from a mean score of about six at baseline to one during the intervention, but rose again to about four points thereafter.

The group of sundowner patients also participated in a six-week study to control for the effect of the animals by having sessions with the dog handlers alone, without their dogs.

Compared with the control period among these patients, animal-assisted therapy improved prosocial behavior (mean 14 versus 7 points) and memory problems (mean 14 versus 19 points).

Although statistical analysis is not yet completed for the preliminary results, Wordley said her group expected the improvements for prosocial behavior to be significant through six weeks.

Primary source: Dementia Care Conference
Source reference:
Wordley AM, et al "Animal-Assisted Therapy for People with Dementia Living in Residential Aged Care Facilities" DCC 2008; PS-19.

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