Effects of VA Facility Dog on Hospitalized Veterans Seen by a Palliative Care Psychologist: An Innovative Approach to Impacting Stress Indicators

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Abstract

The United States is home to 23 million veterans. In many instances, veterans with serious illness who seek healthcare at the VA receive care from a palliative care service. Animal-assisted intervention (AAI) is gaining attention as a therapeutic stress reducing modality; however, its effects have not been well studied in veterans receiving palliative care in an acute care setting. A crossover repeated-measures study was conducted to examine the effects of an animal-assisted intervention (AAI) in the form of a therapy dog on stress indicators in 25 veterans on the palliative care service at the VA Eastern Colorado Healthcare System in Denver, CO. Veterans had a visit from a therapy dog and the dog’s handler, a clinical psychologist (experimental condition) and an unstructured visit with the clinical psychologist alone (control condition). Blood pressure, heart rate, and the salivary biomarkers cortisol, alpha-amylase, and immunoglobulin A were collected before, after, and 30-minutes after both the experimental and control conditions. Significant decreases in cortisol were found when the before time period was compared to the 30-minutes after time period for both the experimental (p = 0.007) and control condition (p = 0.036). A significant decrease in HR was also found when the before time period was compared to the 30-minutes after time period for both the experimental (p = 0.0046) and control (p = 0.0119) condition. Results of this study supported that a VA facility dog paired with a palliative care psychologist had a measurable impact on salivary cortisol levels and HR in veterans.

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