The Western Veterinary Conference is the oldest and among the most prestigious veterinary conferences in the nation. It’s a gathering of 14,000 medical professionals, February 15 through 19 in Las Vegas, NV.
Topics discussed will range from the continued spread of the West Nile Virus, to new thoughts on obsessive compulsive behaviors (like dogs who compulsively chase their tails or snap at imaginary bugs), a new injectable sterilization (a shot called Neutrosol that neuters dogs), and a guy named Don Agnew who was told he would never again walk or talk, or function normally.
Agnew was supposed to die of injuries he sustained in a 27-car pile up in December 2001 in Northwest Indiana. He didn’t, but lapsed into a coma. Doctors said he probably wouldn’t wake up. But he did. Therapy was arduous and mostly non-productive until he met one particular therapist, named Tag.
His therapist happened to be a Labrador retriever, which explains why Agnew will be talked about at the vet conference.
Discussed will be science to support the notion of prescribing pets for therapy, as encouraged by the Skeeter Foundation, a non-profit organization that funds research to learn more about the healing power of pets. Skeeter also facilitates animal assisted activities (taking dogs to children’s hospitals, senior centers, etc).
The Skeeter Foundation (named for an actual dog) was founded by Veterinary Pet Insurance CEO Dr. Jack Stephens. The Chenny Troupe, a Chicago-based animal assisted therapy group will also present at the veterinary conference.
“Veterinarians and technicians can identify the best dogs for these programs,” says Judy Keitz, program coordinator for the Chenny Troupe (also named for a dog). “Of course, by encouraging animal assisted therapy ” they’re encouraging the miracles these dogs are capable of.”
Today, Agnew is set to take a class in SCUBA and/or lessons to fly an airplane. “I can thank a dog named Tag, who moved me to succeed,” he says. “There was something about that dog.”
Actually, there’s something about lots of dogs. No one knows exactly what that special ‘something’ is, but researchers are coming close. While heartwarming anecdotes, like Agnew’s story, have their place, vets are scientists and most interested in real data.
That’s where Rebecca Johnson comes in. She has an adjunct appointment to the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri, Columbia for the study of animal wellness, and she’s an endowed chair at the Sinclair School of Nursing, University of Missouri.
At the Western Veterinary Conference, she’ll present all new research on the neuro-endocrine effects dogs have on people by measuring hormone levels. She also researched the affect people have on hormones in dogs. If indeed dogs do make us feel good, she wondered if the reverse is true ” and dogs’ hormones are affected when people pet them.
In a quiet room, local dog owners sat either with their own dog, a dog they have never met or a robotic dog ” and then they simply stroked the dog (or just sat beside the robotic dog). Based on a preponderance of previous research Johnson knew for a fact that blood pressure lowers by petting a dog. She’d wait until that inevitably happened (after 12 to 30 minutes when there was a dog in the room). When the blood pressure dropped 10 percent, she’d take a blood sample.
She measured several hormones, including cortosol, a hormone associated with stress. All people with dogs (their own dog or stranger dogs) had a decrease in cortosol, proving stress does decrease by petting a dog. Cortosol levels were variable, sometimes going up and sometimes going down in the presence of the robotic dog.
Similarly, dogs’ felt the same way about people – their cortosol levels decreased when they were with people. This was the first study ever in the U.S. to examine hormone levels in dogs.
Prolactin is a hormone associated with feeling nurtured and secure, and it may also assist immune function. When spending time with their own dog, the prolactin level increased the most in people, although prolactin always increased in the presence of a dog. Prolactin levels generally went down when the subject hung out with the robotic dog.
In dogs, their prolactin levels also increased when they were being petted.
“We’re coming closer than ever to prove that animal therapy isn’t magic, it’s a real physiological neurochemical response,” Johnson says.
That doesn’t surprise Chenny Troupe’s Keitz. “You can literally see how some of the patients are stressed when they go into the therapy session, and how that stress fades away as the dogs work. The muscles in the patients begin to relax, and when that happens it’s easier for a stroke patient to throw a ball, for example.”
Lisa Crossett, a Chenny Troupe board member ” and co-presenter at the conference adds, “People don’t even realize it’s therapy because it’s fun. Therapy is a grind, it’s hard work – and when there’s very little gain, it’s frustrating. So, now you’ve thrown a ball. Wow! Talk about a shot of confidence.”
Chenny Troupe is among the oldest and most respected animal assisted therapy groups in the nation. These highly trained dogs, which have passed a test, work with doctors, therapists and medical staff on goal-directed therapy. The dogs do more than help clients feel better ” they help them to actually get better.
Chenny Troupe programs are provided free to facilities, such as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Schwab Rehabilitation and Care Network, Somerset Place, The Rice Child and Family Center, The Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education, The Stone Institute of Psychiatry at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Lincoln Park Hospital, and LaRabida Children’s Hospital.
Johnson notes that medical doctors are actually starting to prescribe pet therapy for patients’ prescription pads. “There’s no side effect to taking a dog for a walk,” she says.
Crosett rattles off other reasons commonly believed to make a difference, “Dogs don’t judge that you’re in a wheelchair, or wince when they see burns on your body. They love unconditionally.”
Johnson agrees, “These dogs really can make a huge difference, and now good science is starting to document this phenomenon.”
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