Physiological and behavioral benefits may be experienced by veterans with PTSD who have service dogs

A new study shows how veterans with PTSD may benefit physiologically from using service dogs.

Kerri Rodriguez, human-animal interaction graduate student (left), and Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction in the College of Veterinary Medicine, look at cortisol samples. Cortisol was one of the measurements used in a new study that shows how veterans with PTSD may benefit physiologically from using service dogs. (Purdue University photo/ Kevin Doerr)
Kerri Rodriguez, human-animal interaction graduate student (left), and Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction in the College of Veterinary Medicine, look at cortisol samples. Cortisol was one of the measurements used in a new study that shows how veterans with PTSD may benefit physiologically from using service dogs. (Purdue University photo/ Kevin Doerr)

A new study by the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, using service dogs may affect the health and well-being of military members and veterans with PTSD. The study shows that how veterans with PTSD may benefit physiologically from using service dogs.

The study plays a vital role as scientific evidence of potential mental health benefits experienced by veterans with PTSD who have service dogs.

Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction in the College of Veterinary Medicine said, “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. 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.”

Kerri Rodriguez, human-animal interaction graduate student said, “We chose to focus our assessments on cortisol as it is a biomarker centrally involved in the stress response system. 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.

Scientists discovered that the military veterans with a service dog in the home produced more cortisol in the mornings than those on the waitlist. This example is closer to the cortisol profile expected in healthy adults without PTSD. Having a service dog was additionally connected with less anger, less nervousness, and better rest.

O’Haire said, “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.”

“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. 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.”

“We are most grateful to the military veterans and their families who have participated in the research thus far. We are honored to be collaborating with these individuals to advance the science behind our interactions with animals and how they affect human lives.”

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.

The study is published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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