The time shared between man and dog "has a calming effect and could be beneficial to their overall health," says researcher Kathie Cole, RN, a registered nurse at the University of California Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Her study showed that a 12-minute visit with a dog improved heart and lung function and decreased anxiety among hospitalized heart failure patients. The benefits exceeded those that resulted from a visit with a human volunteer or from being left alone.
But the therapeutic approach of using dogs to soothe people's minds and improve overall health has been considered more a "nicety" than credible science, she tells WebMD.
Studies like this one, presented at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association, give the approach more credibility, she says. "It's starting to catch on."
"People who are acutely ill miss their loved ones, humans as well as dogs," Cole says. "If you have a loved one who appreciates dogs and finds them meaningful, this makes them happier and healthier."
In heart failure, the heart gradually loses its ability to pump blood effectively, eventually leaving people gasping for breath when they try to walk across a room. About half of people with heart failure die within five years.
Dog Visits Improve Stress Scores
The researchers studied 76 hospitalized people with heart failure. They were randomly assigned either to a 12-minute visit with a dog and trained volunteer, a visit with a trained human volunteer, or to be left alone.
In the volunteer-dog-team group, specially trained dogs of 12 different breeds would lie on patients' beds, so people could touch them while interacting with the volunteer-dog team.
Anxiety scores dropped 24% after a dog visit, compared with 10% for those visited by a person alone. There was no change in anxiety among the patients left alone.
Levels of the stress hormone epinephrine dropped an average of 17% for people visited by a dog vs. just 2% in the volunteer-only group. People who were left alone saw their levels shoot up 7%.
There was also significant improvement seen in their heart failure status.
Sidney Smith, Jr., MD, an American Heart Association spokesman and a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells WebMD that the study shows that man's best friend can have beneficial physiological and psychological effects on people with heart failure.
But visits for such seriously ill people have to be carefully planned, Cole stresses. "Don't just show up at the hospital with a pet."