Study Highlights the Healing Power of Therapy Dogs for Fibromyalgia Patients

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At Purina, we believe that people and pets are better together, and our research and development team is working every day to better understand pets. For people suffering with fibromyalgia, a chronic centralized pain disorder that causes fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, and sleep and memory issues, finding ways to manage pain is a constant battle. The National Fibromyalgia Association estimates that up to 10 million Americans are suffering from fibromyalgia today, and around 3–6% of the global population.

To help address this issue Purina scientists partnered with Mayo Clinic to design the “Better Together” study. The study was centered around bringing people together with pets — in this case, bringing patients with fibromyalgia together with Mayo Clinic Canine Companions therapy dogs for 20-minute sessions, and measuring the impact of this interaction on both the patients and the dogs.

To understand the impact of the session, non-invasive techniques were used to measure changes — from monitoring heart rate and heart rate variability, to testing cortisol and oxytocin in saliva — all of which shed light on stress levels and physiological emotional wellness. The methods used were the same in the patients and the pets. Here’s what we discovered:

For People: Reduced Pain, Increased Mood

While there are some effective treatments for patients with fibromyalgia, most live with chronic pain and fatigue. For the Better Together study, we worked with 221 participants, 111 of whom were given 20 minutes with a therapy dog. After the session with the dog, the participants were measured and compared with the control group who had no interaction with the dog.

The study revealed something exciting — after 20 minutes with a dog, patients had a decreased heart rate, reported less negative and more positive emotions, and a larger decrease in pain. The people who interacted with the dogs saw their oxytocin levels increase significantly — a physiological marker of improved mood.

“The Better Together study showed therapy animals could be an evidence-based treatment option, and healthcare professionals should strongly consider utilizing animal-assisted activity,” said Arya Mohabbat, M.D., lead Mayo Clinic researcher on the project.

This was great news for the potential of therapy dogs as treatment for people with fibromyalgia, but we also wanted to know how the dogs reacted to the interaction.

For Therapy Dogs: No Increase in Stress Levels

The use of therapy and support dogs is widespread, but despite this, we have little understanding of how these therapy sessions impact the mood and wellbeing of the dogs themselves. As part of our study, Purina and Mayo Clinic wanted to discover how these dogs fared after 20 minutes interacting with a patient.

It was good news for the dogs, which varied in breed, age, and size. Most parameters studied showed no change, suggesting contentment and no increase in stress during the sessions. In fact, the heart rates of the dogs were lower after the periods of interaction, suggesting that as well as being good at their jobs, the therapy dogs had enjoyed their time spent with the participants and were feeling calm.

“We need to expand our understanding of how animal-assisted activity impacts a therapy dog’s wellbeing,” said François Martin, M.A., Ph.D., Applied behavior and welfare research section leader at Purina, and lead Purina scientist on the project. “This encourages us to do more research to demonstrate the power of the human-animal bond on people while ensuring assistance animals also experience positive wellness as a result of their work.”

Our Work Continues

At Purina, we’ve always believed that people and pets are better together, and the Better Together study is further evidence that the bond between animals and humans is strong. Our work will not stop here, as we’re also supporting work that explores the therapeutic benefits of cats, to broaden awareness of how pets — both feline and canine — can aid the health and wellbeing of their owners, and vice versa.

“While most people tend to associate therapy animals with dogs, cats also provide a variety of mental and physiological benefits,” said Dr. Annie Valuska, Ph.D., senior pet behavior expert at Purina. “Cat owners often have lower stress levels than non-pet owners, which can improve blood pressure and cardiovascular health over time. Cats can also boost our mental health, decreasing feelings of loneliness and increasing a sense of purpose.”

We’re excited to learn more about just how powerful the human animal bond may be.

Dan Smith, Senior Vice President of Global Strategic Business Unit and R&D at Nestlé Purina

Daniel Smith, is Executive Vice President of the Global Strategic Business Unit and R&D. Dan has 35 years of PetCare experience with much of that leading Purina’s R&D efforts to enrich the lives of pets. In his current role, Dan works with our PetCare businesses around the world to guide strategic direction, product innovation pipelines, and capital investment. Away from work, Dan spends time with his wife and 6 children, 3 of whom are now married, 3 grandchildren and his dog Gracie. Dan also serves on boards and leadership committees in the community for several non-profit organizations.

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