Beyond their friendly eyes, sloppy kisses and ever-wagging tails, dogs have much to offer us in the form of public service. From guide dogs to rescue dogs, these furry beasts perform daily acts of heroism that often go unrecognized. Particularly underappreciated is their boundless energy and unparalleled ability to love. But recent work at Loyola University may be the start of a revolution in how we value our pets.

In a nearly unprecedented experiment, these researchers showed the importance of having dogs around for the sake of our health. Their methods were simple and direct: they paired a group of post-operational patients with therapy dogs and compared their pain levels and need for medication to a group without animal-assisted therapy.

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These patients, having just undergone a total joint replacement, were understandably in a considerable amount of pain, a pain so strong that you might imagine both groups of patients would require an equally strong dose of pain medication. But, in fact, emotional therapy in the form of a four-legged friend was almost just as good.

Their results were significant — the patients who spent only 5-15 minutes with a dog requested pain medication nearly 30% less often. These findings are some of the first to link dogs and human health and, as co-author and professor Fran Vlasses said, may indicate the “healing potential of animals.”

Though limited by a small sample size and an imperfect control of other variables such as the specific conditions of the joint operation, this study makes concrete a relationship that until now has been highly speculative. Most animal-lovers or even just animal-likers recognize the power a furry hug or a slobbering smooch can have in improving their mood. Even college campuses have begun to toy with this idea by offering “puppy therapy” sessions during stressful times such as final exams.

But this bond goes beyond just making us smile; as lead author Julia Harvey explains, “The animal-human connection is powerful in reducing stress and in generating a sense of well-being.” Though only in the first stage, this research is making important steps towards establishing an empirical platform for animal treatment of physical and emotional pain. With scientists and doctors behind them, therapy dogs may be a new collaborative and highly sustainable solution — not to mention highly cute as well.

About The Author

I like to dance and think thoughts. My water bottle is covered in stickers of baby animals, and I think socks are by far the best kind of clothing.