Furry friends at the dentist?
The dentist — a place full of noisy equipment, bright lights and the constant reminder to floss your teeth. Panic can set in as soon as you sit in the chair and slowly recline back, creating stress and a spike in your blood pressure.
Certified therapy dogs are helping dentist offices become less terrifying for both children and adults. Research from 2016 published in the journal of Dental Hypotheses looked at various studies in how animals help individuals cope with procedures, pain management, unusual smells and noise while serving as a distraction mechanism.
“Recent literature suggests that pets (some say dogs in particular) can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, encourage playfulness and even improve cardiovascular health,” says Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn, licensed clinical psychologist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill.
Dental anxiety is real; it consists of crying, the inability to relax, anger issues and having negative thoughts before and at the dentist. This fear often stems from the “4 Ss”: “sights, sounds, sensations and smells of needles and drills,” according to the study.
With dental fear, there’s a feeling that you don’t have control over what will happen. Consequently, patients with extreme worry avoid appointments. Their teeth can be severely impacted, creating a great risk for cavities and tooth decay.
Researchers concluded therapy dogs release this worry by sitting on your lap or standing near you during dental work. Thus, you are more inclined to stroke the animal instead of focusing your attention on what is happening inside your mouth. And there is a shift in moods for both patients and staff, creating a sense of relief and content feelings.
“Pets help meet the basic human need for touch. In addition, petting a dog, even for short periods (15 minutes or so) triggers the release of serotonin, prolactin, dopamine and oxytocin, the ‘feel good’ and calming/relaxing hormones. At the same time, it can lower the release of cortisol, a stress hormone,” explains Dr. Woodburn.
Physical touch is something that most animals and people enjoy, which in turn impacts how they communicate with each other. When patients interact with therapy dogs, positive signals are sparked in their brains, which can affect general mental health.
Dr. Woodburn notes dogs provide comfort and are a healthy distraction during stressful situations. They also are beneficial during frightening or painful medical interventions and help to lower your blood pressure.
Therapy animals appear to have mental and physical advantages. However, the study notes before dentists bring therapy dogs into patient rooms, staff must follow proper infection precautionary rules, use good judgement and be aware of possible health problems.
Another benefit? “Patients who interact with therapy dogs are less likely to feel lonely and suffer depression. This can lead to overall improvements in health and increase the likelihood that the person will seek medical care that is needed,” says Dr. Woodburn.
About the Author
Kelsey Andeway, health e-news contributor, is a public affairs intern at Advocate Health Care in Downers Grove. She is a senior at Loyola University Chicago earning a bachelor's degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Dance. In her free time, Kelsey enjoys dancing, baking, and taking long walks with her Chocolate Lab.