Can Animals Help Heal People?

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Programs that use animals to calm patients and relieve tension are called animals therapy.

In the United States, these treatments are popular, although there isn’t enough evidence to show that they work.

However, there are many stories of animal therapy helping people. For example, some children have a fear of injections. That can make getting the COVID-19 vaccine a difficult experience.

So some hospitals use therapy animals — like Ollie, a six-year-old therapy dog. Ollie helps children at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, California, overcome their fear of vaccinations.

Kristin Gist and her dog Ollie meet 9-year-old Angel Garcia at Rady Children’s Hospital (AP Photo: Mike Blake)

One of those children is nine-year-old Avery Smith. At the children’s hospital, she cried for her fear of the vaccine. Thereafter. Ollie came in and sat down at her feet. Avery told a Reuters reporter about her experience.

“It helped me because I’d never had a COVID vaccine before,” Avery said. She added: “I didn’t know what it felt like. But when I saw the dog, it helped me calm down.”

In early November, children in the United States aged five to 11 could receive the vaccine. Since then, Ollie and 14 other dogs have helped them vaccinate at the California hospital. They are part of a therapy program that is paid for by an animal supplier.

Even before the vaccine, therapy dogs were used in children’s hospitals. Some children in the hospital are fighting cancer or other serious illnesses.

Kristin Gist is a 75-year-old canine therapy volunteer and former director of hospital programs. She is also Ollie’s owner. Gist said that sometimes parents hold the dog and seem to feel better too.

This is Ollie, a therapy dog. He is waiting at home for a ride to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, California. (AP photo Mike Blake)

However, some experts say there is a lack of scientific evidence showing that animal therapy improves a patient’s medical condition.

One of those experts is Hal Herzog. He is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. He has been studying the relationships between humans and animals for more than 20 years.

Herzog told VOA that an animal can distract a patient. Other things, he added, such a favorite toy could have the same effect.

“Some studies have shown that for the short-term prevention of pain — Interaction having a dog can set your mind on something else. And in that case, I see no harm in doing it. And for some kids it will probably be effective.”

However, Herzog criticized the use of animals as a medical treatment, such as a medicine. He said research does not show that animal therapy is effective.

“A lot of research has been done, but most of it isn’t very good. And some studies have shown… some of the better studies have shown that therapy dogs didn’t really have one consequence on children and adults who were inserted stressful, experimental situations.”

Bad research methods

Herzog said the poor research methods come in many forms.

Many studies do not use a control group. A control group helps scientists understand whether an experimental treatment has any effect. Some studies do not consider the effects of the dog handlers. They are often nice people and can also help the patient.

People involved in animal therapy research, Herzog said, often believe in it. Their personal opinion can therefore influence the research.

Herzog also talked about something called the “file drawer” problem. This is when a researcher doesn’t get the desired results and puts the findings in a ‘file drawer’ or somewhere they don’t look often.

Sometimes, he said, there are conflicts of interest. Many studies on the healthful effects of pet ownership and animal therapy are funded by the pet industry.

However, Herzog said that even when those studies find a lack of evidence, some in the media are still reporting the findings in a good way. Herzog said the media often reports incorrectly about such investigations.

Herzog wrote about one of the best studies of dog therapy. He explained that the study was conducted at five major US hospitals. It looked at the effects of therapy dogs on children with cancer. The study found no clear benefit of the therapy dogs. However, the media reported that the study found benefits.

As a result, people might think that animal therapy has more of an impact on long-term human health than it does. Herzog has reported on this in Psychology Today magazine.

Herzog said he is not against the use of animals in therapy. He tells the story of his own son, a nurse in the intensive care unit of a hospital. That hospital also brings in animals to help, not the patients, but the hospital staff. His son says everyone loves the visits.

Herzog, however, thinks differently about the long-term effects of using animals as medical treatment.

“It seems to me that if we are going to push dogs, animals as medicine, we should hold them to the same” default- like we do drugs.”

Ollie greets Tanner Rico, 16, at Rady Children’s Hospital, Nov. 11, 2021. (AP Photo Mike Blake)

For some people, even if there is no evidence, the smile and happy distraction may be enough. Last year, as hospitals imposed COVID-19 restrictions, dog visits at Rady Children’s Hospital stopped. They will restart in August 2021.

“There was nothing. It was quiet. The children were” boredCarlos Delgado, a hospital spokesman, said. “So thank goodness,” he told Reuters, “we could start bringing the program back.”

Delgado added that even a short three-minute visit with a dog makes a difference in a patient’s day.

And that’s the Health & Lifestyle report.

I am Anna Matteo.

For this story, Anna Matteo interviewed Hal Herzog for VOA Learning English and Daniel Trotta reported from the California hospital for Reuters News Agency. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.

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Words in this story

therapy – N. the treatment of physical or mental illness

distract – v. get someone to stop thinking about one thing and make them think about something else

interact – v. talking to or doing things with other people

stressful – adj. worry or cause tension

benefit – N. a good or useful result or effect

standards – N. (pl.) a group of requirements that are expected to be met

consequence – N. influencing or influencing something

bored – adj. being tired and unhappy about something uninteresting or repetitive

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