Houston, Texas, USA : For veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, service dogs might be able to offer both behavioral and physiological benefits to help counter some of those symptoms, according to research that is being led by the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine.
Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is at the forefront of the research that is taking a closer look at how service dogs help veterans with PTSD. The latest findings have indicated that veterans may benefit physiologically from having a service dog—the first published research to use a physiological marker to show the effects of service dogs.
“I think a lot of veterans are struggling and they are looking for treatment options anywhere they can find them,” O’Haire says. “There is a lot of hope around this practice and veterans deserve to know if it works.”
A preliminary study that took place in 2015-16 showed that overall symptoms of PTSD were lower among war veterans with service dogs. The pilot study was co-funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Bayer Animal Health. The study examined 141 veterans—with 76 of them having a service dog and 66 being on a waiting list for a dog.
O’Haire led that study with the help of K9s For Warriors an accredited nonprofit organization that provides veterans with service dogs. The pilot research project provided scientific evidence of mental health benefits experienced by veterans with PTSD who have service dogs. The findings during that study also went beyond behavioral benefits and assessed cortisol levels because it is a biomarker in the stress response system, O’Haire says. For veterans with service dogs, their cortisol levels were higher in the morning than those who were on the waiting list. People without PTSD typically have high cortisol levels in the morning as part of their response to waking up. O’Haire’s research has also revealed that for veterans, having a service dog was also associated with less anger, less anxiety and better sleep.
Another phase of that study funded by Merrick Pet Care and Newman’s Own Foundation examined the dogs themselves and how they are incorporated into the treatment of veterans. That data is currently being analyzed.
A large-scale National Institutes of Health clinical trial has been ongoing for about a year and has two years to go, according to O’Haire. Researchers are studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time. O’Haire hopes the longitudinal nature of this clinical trial will reveal a better understanding of physiological and behavioral processes, PTSD symptoms, and service dogs in general.
Video Credit : Purdue University
A second study found that physiological benefits may be experienced by veterans with PTSD who use service dogs.
Physiological benefits may be experienced by veterans with PTSD who use service dogs
A new study shows how veterans with PTSD may benefit physiologically from using service dogs.
This study, led by the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, is the first published research to use a physiological marker to define the biobehavioral effects of service dogs on veterans with PTSD.
The findings were published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, and they may be significant as scientific evidence of potential mental health benefits experienced by veterans with PTSD who have service dogs.
The study was co-funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Bayer Animal Health. The research was led by Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Kerri Rodriguez, human-animal interaction graduate student, with the help of K9s For Warriors, an accredited nonprofit organization that provides veterans with service dogs. The study also was in collaboration with the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at the University of California, Irvine.
“Our long-term research goal is to quantify how service dogs may affect the health and well-being of military members and veterans with PTSD,” O’Haire said. “This study compared a group of veterans with PTSD who had a service dog to a group on the waitlist to receive one. Our previous research suggests that the presence of a service dog reduced clinical PTSD symptoms and improved quality of life. In this study, we wanted to determine if those beneficial effects also included changes in the physiology of stress.”
“We chose to focus our assessments on cortisol as it is a biomarker centrally involved in the stress response system,” said Rodriguez, lead author on the paper. In this way, the study seeks to improve the understanding of the potential mechanisms for how and why a service dog may help this population.
Cortisol can be measured non-invasively in saliva, which enabled the veterans to collect samples themselves at home immediately after waking up in the morning and about 30 minutes later. This allowed researchers to look at how much cortisol was being produced during the morning. The magnitude of the “cortisol awakening response” has been extensively studied and is used as a metric of the effects of chronic and acute stress. Non-PTSD, healthy adults experience an increase in cortisol after waking up.
“We found that military veterans with a service dog in the home produced more cortisol in the mornings than those on the waitlist,” Rodriguez said. “This pattern is closer to the cortisol profile expected in healthy adults without PTSD. Having a service dog was also associated with less anger, less anxiety, and better sleep.”
O’Haire says, though, while this finding is important, it should be taken in context.
“These findings present exciting initial data regarding the physiological response to living with a service dog. However, the study did not establish a direct correlation, on an individual level, between cortisol levels and levels of PTSD symptoms, and further study is needed. It is important to keep in mind that service dogs do not appear to be a cure for PTSD,” O’Haire said.
The next step, already underway, involves a large-scale National Institutes of Health clinical trial in which the researchers are studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time. “Our research team will be able to look at morning cortisol levels both before and after getting a service dog to see how these physiological effects manifest over time,” O’Haire said. “The longitudinal nature of this clinical trial should bring about a better understanding of the interrelationships between physiological and behavioral processes, PTSD symptoms, and service dogs.”
She also emphasizes that the participation of veterans in the studies should not be taken for granted. “We are most grateful to the military veterans and their families who have participated in the research thus far,” O’Haire said. “We are honored to be collaborating with these individuals to advance the science behind our interactions with animals and how they affect human lives.”
Citation for second study: Kerri E. Rodriguez et al, TEMPORARY REMOVAL: The Effect of a Service Dog on Salivary Cortisol Awakening Response in a Military Population with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Psychoneuroendocrinology. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.04.026
A third study found mind-body therapy to be effective for military veterans with PTSD
Mind-body therapy effective for military veterans with PTSD
Post-9/11 military veterans who receive mind-body therapy have significant improvements in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a study co-authored by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Professor Kathryn Braun in the Journal for Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
“Our findings show that mind-body interventions are effective in reducing the severity of PTSD symptoms associated with combat,” said Braun, director and professor at the Office of Public Health Studies within the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work. “They also can reduce depression and anxiety symptoms, and increase mindfulness and sleep quality in veterans with PTSD.”
Combat-related PTSD is a major public health challenge for the Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs. When service members return from deployment with combat-related PTSD, conventional therapies include cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medications.
But complementary and alternative treatments, such as mind-body therapies including meditation and yoga, are less invasive. Thus they may be more attractive to service members and veterans.
Not only are mind-body therapies effective, but they may also be less costly than conventional treatments. For example, yoga can be taught and delivered to a dozen service members or veterans at a time.
Study author Robin Cushing is an Army physician assistant who teaches yoga in military and veteran communities. “We reviewed 15 pieces of literature on the effects of mind-body interventions for veterans with PTSD,” said Cushing. “Our findings show that, for the majority of participants, their PTSD symptoms improved.”
Citation for third study : Robin E. Cushing et al. Mind–Body Therapy for Military Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. DOI: 10.1089/acm.2017.0176