Fascinating research has shown that adults recovering from common—and notably painful—surgery fare far better when animal assisted therapy is prescribed, rather than dangerous amounts of addictive narcotic painkillers.
In fact, according to research presented at the First Human Animal Interaction Conference (HAI) in Kansas City, Missouri, US, in 2009, patients who engaged in “animal-assisted therapy” managed to recover from total-joint replacement surgery using 50% fewer opioid drugs than patients who did not get support from a furry friend.
Yes you read that right - this research seems to suggest that dogs can provide pain relief equivalent to that typically supplied by powerful narcotic analgesics. “Evidence suggests that animal-assisted therapy can have a positive effect on a patient's emotional and physical well being,” said Julia Havey, RN, who presented the study.
A Missing Piece of the Opioid Crisis Puzzle?
Given the present drug dependency crisis unfolding in the US, UK, and other developed countries, this finding from nearly a decade ago resonates with special urgency. In fact, in 2016, addiction to prescribed pain medications was judged to be as great a problem in the UK as addiction to illegal drugs, such as heroin. As reported in New Scientist, October 2016, the crisis is a “great public health disaster,” which is ruining countless lives and killing hundreds annually across the UK. A recent study concluded that prescriptions for opioid analgesics (for non-cancer-related pain) had increased seven times over the decade from 2000 - 2010.
As unlikely as it may sound, if drugs are not the answer, perhaps dogs are. Years ago, Havey and another fellow nurse began raising dogs to serve as trained assistants to people struggling with physical and mental disabilities. Their program, called Canine Companions for Independence, provides the dedicated service animals free of charge.
Dogs to the Rescue
These working dogs are trained to cope with the demands of operating in a range of social settings. After some socialization training in puppyhood, the dogs undergo six to nine months of specialized training at 15 months of age. There, they may be trained to fill one of four different service roles. They’re trained to assist with various physical tasks to support patients with debilitating conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries. But, crucially, the animals also provide emotional and social support.
Trained to respond to 40 different voice commands, the dogs can perform key tasks, but the primary goal is to “motivate, rehabilitate or soothe clients with special needs”. Dogs can be trained to alert their charges when potential emergencies arise, such as smoke alarms going off, or simply to notify a patient when the phone rings, or the doorbell needs to be answered.
These canines are clearly hard working, but don’t worry that they might be exploited. After eight years of age, dogs in the program are retired, and allowed to live out the remainder of their lives as ordinary pets in a loving home.