Study on the Effects of Dog-Assisted Therapies on Physical and Psychological Well-Being in the Institutionalized Elderly

Project location: ITALY, Rome
Project start date: December 2008 - Project end date: December 2009
Project number: 2008-23
Beneficiary: ANUCSS


The group at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS), which plays a major advisory role in the Italian health system, has the expertise and credentials to conduct this project, which received a grant from the NPF. In the last ten years, the ISS has been taking a leading role in Italy in the coordination of Pet therapy programs (see ISS has been selecting and advertising high standard training activities (mainly University courses and Masters) through our website and have sponsored pilot experiences in order to promote research on Pet therapy at the national and international level with the aim of fostering the study of human-animal interactions and of documenting their effectiveness in healing. ANUCSS, which is responsible for animal's conduction during the therapies, has a long-standing experience in dog-assisted therapies with elderly people in institutionalized settings which will improve project feasibility. ANUCSS intervention protocols employ only professional staff and appropriately selected and trained animals. A staff of veterinarians ensures the well being of the animals used in the therapies.
Dog-Assisted Therapies/Animal Assisted Therapies (AAT), commonly known as Pet therapy, are goal-directed interventions in which an animal selected, according to specific criteria, as an integral part of the treatment process. AAT are delivered and/or directed by a health/human service provider. AAT are designed to improve human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. They are provided in a variety of settings and may involve groups or be individual in nature. This process is documented and evaluated.
The elderly population is undoubtedly sensitive to change and loss. Aging is a delicate stage of life which makes old subjects highly vulnerable to pathological relapses and deterioration in somatic, psychic and quality of life. Separations from the family - as in the case of rest home residents - and marginalization and isolation that often stem from institutionalization, thus became important risk-factors of depression and other diseases. In the institutionalized elderly there is evidence that pet therapy may reduce depression, blood pressure, irritability and agitation, and may increase social interactions. In an epidemiological study the presence of a pet was found to have a positive effect on survival in old subjects that had suffered from infarction. In Alzheimer's disease there is evidence that the presence of a companion animal may increase social behaviours such as smiles, laughs, looks, leans, touches, verbalizations, name-calling, or others. Moreover, Pet therapy can reduce loneliness and depression in residents of long-term care facilities, particularly in people with a prior history of pet ownership.

The presence of a pet has also been found to lead to increased verbal interactions among residents. Overall, AAT have progressively revealed their ability to heal as well as to provide opportunities to enhance the quality of the life of people with physical and mental disabilities.
At the institutional level, growing efforts have raised attention in Pet therapies. However, no methodologies have been fully standardized and implemented for the therapeutic exploitation of animals, although the pressing need to help affected categories, especially elderly in long-term care facilities, has stimulated scattered efforts at an explosive pace.
The aim of this study is to assess whether a Pet therapy program has a beneficial effect on the psychological well-being, particularly on aspects related to depressive symptoms and perception of quality of life, in the cognitively intact, institutionalized elderly.
More specifically, main Objectives of the study will be:
i) Assess the impact of Dog-assisted therapies in an institutionalized elderly population recruited in nursing homes in the Lazio Region by means of objective neuropsychological and physiological measurements of the subject's well being with a special reference to psychological and physiological measures of stress (using non-invasive methodologies).
ii) Promote and implement novel methodologies for the care of the institutionalized elderly to reduce old subject's isolation, improve their social life, their attention abilities and their independency. Informed consent from the patients and approval by the ISS Ethical Committee will be sought.


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