Loneliness is linked to a number of health threats, is considered to be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is potentially more dangerous than obesity. Loneliness was considered to be at epidemic proportions prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting need for social distancing has exacerbated loneliness and other mental health concerns. Loneliness is associated with significant morbidity and mortality risks among people with Mental Illness (MI). As many as 70% of community-dwelling adults with MI endorse experiencing loneliness, which increases exponentially with the number of co-morbid psychiatric diagnoses. A growing body of evidence indicates that companion animals offer a number of health and wellbeing benefits., Interacting with a trained therapy animal as part of an animal assisted interaction (AAI) may provide social support for patients with mental illness, thus reducing the risk of loneliness. The use of AAIs for hospitalized patients with MI as a strategy for reducing loneliness has been understudied. Scientists and practitioners need clear answers to some key questions before specific recommendations can be made.
- Evaluate the feasibility of a therapy dog visitation intervention (AAI) over four consecutive days on an inpatient psychiatry unit, compared to a conversational control intervention (CC), and a treatment as usual control condition (TU) in psychiatric inpatients;
- Assess the efficacy of an AAI over four consecutive days, compared to CC, and a treatment as usual control condition (TU) in psychiatric inpatients;
- Obtain information required to estimate sample size for a large randomized controlled trial (RCT) of a therapy dog visitation program in the population of psychiatric inpatients, combined with already funded pilot data from a sample of older adults to calculate power, determine sample size, and pursue federal funding for a large scale, multi-site, clinical trial.
The proposed study employs a three-group RCT design to examine study implementation feasibility and effects of AAI compared to CC and TU conditions. We will randomize 60 psychiatry inpatients to one of three conditions (AAI, CC, or TU) for a four-day treatment period.
Researchers anticipate that patients will demonstrate greater improvements in the primary outcome of loneliness, and in the secondary mental health and well-being outcomes of anxiety, depression, HRQOL and mood in the therapy dog visitation program compared to the CC and TU conditions from phase 1-4 and from pre to post intervention during phase 2. Researchers anticipate that at least 50% of patients approached will consent to participation in the study. Researchers anticipate greater than 75% adherence (session completion) and less than 25% attrition (failure to attend sessions) in the AAI and CC groups. Researchers anticipate similar rates of completion in phase 3 and phase 4 assessments in the three groups, with greater failure longer after study completion. Researchers anticipate that a high proportion (at least 75%) of patients will report satisfaction with the AAI (phase 3) and that the proportion will be higher than for the CC.