Animal-assisted therapy can effectively reduce the loneliness of residents in long-term care facilities, according to a study by Marian R. Banks of the VA Medical Center in St. Louis and William A. Banks of St. Louis University School of Medicine, Missouri.
The doctors noted that although animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is claimed to have a variety of benefits, until now almost all published results have been anecdotal. Their study, reported in the July 2002 issue of Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, found that even one AAT session of 30 minutes per week was effective in reducing loneliness to a statistically significant degree.
The study showed that AAT can effectively reduce the loneliness of residents in long-term care facilities who wish to receive such therapy. "The study also found that a large number of residents in these facilities have strong life-history of relationships with pets as an intimate part of their support system and, if given a choice, would continue that relationship," the doctors added.
The demographics were typical of long-term care residents: women, widowed, and older than 75 years of age. Of the 45 study participants, only two did not have pets during their childhood. The non-participating residents in the long-term care facility also had had pets during childhood.
One of the more interesting findings in the study was the spontaneous recollection of childhood pets by the residents. Participants would talk to their therapy animals about past events with their former pets. For example, one resident spoke to the dog and asked if the dog had gone hunting. She remembered fondly how her pet dog would catch squirrels and rabbits and bring them to her.
The participants in the study were administered the Demographic and Pet History Questionnaire and Version 3 of the UCLA Loneliness Scale. The study tested AAT for graded response; that is, residents were exposed to AAT either once or three times a week. The results show that treatment once a week is as effective as three times a week.