Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins Critical Care Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Program (CCPM&R)

The hospital is a place few people enjoy being admitted to and for those in the intensive care unit (ICU) it can be an experience that’s especially stressful.

Medications can help ease a patient’s fear, but they can have negative side effects like delirium. In an effort to treat patients without turning to pills, some doctors are now seeing if a little furry friendship can help.

Trading pills for paws

An article published this month in the Critical Care medical journal discusses how nonpharmacologic interventions, including canine therapy, can help decrease stress levels and alleviate fear even in some of the sickest patients.

Megan Hosey, PhD, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, witnessed the positive impact of animal-assisted intervention with patients when she worked with them in rehabilitation.

“My first experience with AAI (animal-assisted intervention) happened when I worked on an inpatient rehabilitation unit,” she said. “There was already a consistent, dedicated program there and it was clear that patients in rehabilitation therapies [like physical therapy and occupational therapy] were more engaged in the session and were able to do more when a dog was present.”

She found the patients were able to stand longer, walk farther, and even throw a ball to the dogs, after some canine therapy. Hosey thought that the program could benefit patients in other parts of the hospital.

“I believed that the same would be true for patients in the intensive care unit, even though they were early in their recovery process,” she said.

A patient in the ICU faces a potentially scary and dread-filled environment. During this time, it’s not unusual for a patient’s mind to race with fear and negative thoughts, even to the point they may think they’re going to die there.

The isolation and loneliness of not being able to normally interact with their natural support system, both family and friends, can impact a patient’s mood and health.

In order to see if these patients would enjoy the canine therapy, Hosey and other researchers were able to adapt the hospital protocol to make it safe to bring in therapy dogs to the ICU. In a small pilot program, 10 patients between their 20s to 80s were able to interact with the dogs.

Hosey said they’ve received positive feedback about integrating animal-assisted intervention into a patient’s day.

“Patients, family members, and staff tell us that patients experience elevations in mood and feel better supported after the visits,” Hosey told Healthline.

They plan on expanding the research to better measure the patients’ biological responses. Past research, while often in small studies, showed animals can be beneficial to healing.

A small 2015 study found that children who had canine therapy after surgery appeared to have better outcomes and less pain. Other studies have also found that canine therapy helps reduce pain symptoms.

Hosey and her co-authors said that these new kinds of nonpharmacologic therapies will be especially important in the future. As adults are now living longer, many older adults are being hospitalized in the ICU and receive medications that can induce delirium or other side effects that are particularly harmful to the elderly.

Dan Cojanu, founder and program director of the Canine Advocacy Program knows first- hand the positive impact a canine interaction can have on one’s mood.

“There isn’t a stronger support you can give a person in crisis than that of a dog,” said Cojanu. “Watching a person’s anxiety disappear at the mere sight of a dog is something to experience.”

Improving the patient’s experience and decreasing suffering is something a healthcare team desires for their unit.

The ICU of the future

Non-medical interventions, especially friendly and furry ones, may mean that patients will experience a home-like environment, have decreased anxiety, and also a decrease in medication intake.

“Bringing trained animals to the ICU is part of a bigger change happening in critical care,” Hosey said. “The research shows that critically ill patients have better outcomes when we help them be awake, active, and engaged.”

In the future, bedside visits from canines may become standard for the patient’s stay, but Hosey pointed out they’re just one option to help keep patients calm and comfortable without medications.

“Other ways include working on strategies for anxiety management, providing education about the ICU environment, illness, and prognosis, and incorporating valued activities into hospital life,” Hosey explained. “These are other things we are building.”