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After a 20-minute animal-assisted therapy session, scientists measured the cortisol and oxytocin levels of the dogs to determine hormonal changes, ear temperatures, heart rate, and heart rate variability.

Whether it’s providing comfort after a long day or helping solve murders, it seems as though dogs can do almost anything. And, now a new study showed therapy dogs can help ease symptoms of Fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a complex disorder with no known cure, but there are some treatment tools to help patients manage their symptoms such as fatigue, sleep issues, and memory and mood problems. Researchers have recently found a new tool for doctors — animal-assisted therapy.

Purina funded a study and partnered with the Mayo Clinic to discover the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy on Fibromyalgia patients. “Based on the study, animal-assisted activity can be confidently added as a new tool for doctors of patients with fibromyalgia to consider as part of their treatment plans,” said François Martin, M.A., Ph.D., the lead Purina scientist on the project.

We chatted with Martin to learn more about the results of the study, including how animal-assisted therapy impacts both fibromyalgia patients and therapy dogs. Here’s what we learned.

Therapy Dogs Help Fibromyalgia Patients

Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain sensitivity disorder. People struggling with this disorder often experience fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, along with sleep, memory, and mood problems. At the start of the study, the scientists wanted to discover how therapy dogs could positively impact the patients.

The study included 221 patients with Fibromyalgia and 19 therapy dogs. Of the 221 patients, 111 of them participated in an animal-assisted activity session for 20 minutes. Following the session, researchers tested physiological and emotional measures such as cortisol, oxytocin, heart rate, heart rate variability, and tympanic membrane temperature.

The study concluded that the patients who received animal-assisted therapy were in a more positive emotional-physiological state, reported less negative emotions, had a decrease in pain, and greater tympanic membrane temperature laterality. They also had a significant increase in oxytocin levels, decreased heart rate, and increased heart rate variability.

In short, all of these results suggest that a 20-minute session with a therapy dog has a significant and positive impact on patients with Fibromyalgia.

“We were excited to find that the people with Fibromyalgia who interacted with the therapy dogs were in a more positive emotional and physiological state after the session,” said Martin. “The patients reported a greater decrease in their Fibromyalgia symptoms, including pain levels.”

In addition to fewer symptoms, patients reported stronger positive feelings, Martin explained. “It really looks like the patients benefited from the presence of the therapy dogs,” he said.

Researchers were able to show with non-invasive measures that animal-assisted activity has a positive effect on the emotional state of both the patients and the therapy dogs working with them.

Therapy Dogs Love Their Jobs

Some of the most heartwarming videos and stories on the internet are about therapy dogs helping people such as patients and children. While we’ve known for years that animal-assisted activity has a positive impact on humans in most situations, there was little information about the impact on the therapy dogs.

Along with determining if animal-assisted therapy helps people with Fibromyalgia, scientists wanted to know how it impacted the dogs. The team asked, “What is the emotional state of therapy dogs after a 20-minute animal-assisted activity session with a patient?”

“By taking a series of non-invasive physiological measures known to be associated with wellbeing, we were able to get a comprehensive look at how the Mayo Clinic Caring Canines therapy dogs reacted to their work,” Martin explained.

After a 20-minute animal-assisted therapy session, scientists measured the cortisol and oxytocin levels of the dogs to determine hormonal changes, ear temperatures, heart rate, and heart rate variability. All of these levels offer an in-depth evaluation of the dogs’ wellbeing.

The conclusion? The dogs love their jobs.

“The therapy dogs involved in our projects are friendly, outgoing canines that like to meet and interact with new people,” Martin explained. “Their owners know them well and are attuned to their dog’s body language.”

However, the research made it clear that the dogs were in a positive emotional state when they worked with patients with Fibromyalgia. “Our findings matched the owners’ observations that their dogs enjoy being part of the Mayo Clinic Caring Canine program,” he explained.

Related article: Booker T. Pug Inspires Confidence & Reading Comprehension as Therapy Dog
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