Could pet therapy keep dialysis patients on track with their appointments, medications?

First-of-its-kind study happening right now in San Antonio; results looking promising

SAN ANTONIO - – Amber Pena waits all week to see a very special friend.

“There’s my boy! How you doing, Nike?” Pena beamed as a perky Rhodesian Ridgeback nuzzled up to her.

Pena has been on dialysis for four years.

“I had very severe diabetes. I’d eat something and my blood sugar would be up to 500, and I had a bad hypertension problem. Both are family-related,” she explained.

She and other patients with damaged or failing kidneys spend four hours at U.S. Renal Care in San Antonio, three times a week.

It can get exhausting, but for the last 11 weeks Pena has been able to meet with dogs like Nike, and she can’t wait to show up for treatment.

“I know they help my mood because I get happy every time I think about getting to see them,” she smiled, feeding Nike a treat.

The pet therapy is part of a rare study happening in San Antonio. The treatment has never been studied in a dialysis setting.

“Both chronic pain and depression are very common problems in dialysis patients. And when these two particular problems aren’t managed well, they can sometimes lead to them missing their scheduled appointments,” said UT Health San Antonio Assistant Professor of Research and Psychology Dr. Meredith Stensland.

Dr. Stensland is heading the research and says missed treatments put patients’ lives at risk.

“Winding up in the E.R., being hospitalized, even in the ICU,” she said.

That triggers costs for the community.

“It helps the patients, it helps the clinic and it helps the health care system as a whole when patients can hit those scheduled treatments that they have,” Stensland explained.

In the research that’s about to wrap up, she’s tracking any missed appointments.

It is a randomized trial, so some of the patients get to meet with dogs twice a week and others get to meet with them once.

“How does it work if patients get more time with the dog? Is it more beneficial? So we’re interested in after the dog visit, you know, are there pain and depression? Is it alleviated somewhat but also over the larger course of the 12-week trial? Do those symptoms kind of trend downward?” Stensland explained.

It’s safe to say things are looking good.

“I think it’s going to show that petting the dogs and having interaction with the dogs does alleviate a lot of the low moods. It alleviates a lot of pain, distraction from any pain. I just think it’s going to do well,” Pena said.

“We’re having patients ask if they can get more visits per week than they were randomized to receive. They’re asking for the study to extend beyond the 12-week trial,” Stensland laughed.

During KSAT’s visit to U.S. Renal Care, every patient participating in the study said they hoped the pet therapy would continue.

“With this, with this trial, we’re really hoping that this is like a spearhead or something that we can, we can offer permanently for our patients,” said US Renal Care Research Director Dr. Adrian Elorriaga.

Elorriaga explained U.S. Renal Care offers patients dialysis all over the nation. His hope is, that if the study shows positive results, he could extend pet therapy to patients across the country.

Patients like Pena may just need a little boost from a furry friend.

“I love it. I really do, and I’m dreading the day that we might not be able to get to see the dogs, but they’re trying to work it out so that they remain coming. So I would be so happy!” Pena said.

Most of the patients are wrapping up their 12 weeks of the study this week. A few started later and will finish by July 9.

Then, Stensland and her team will compile the data. She hopes the results will prompt larger studies that will eventually lead to wider use of this therapy for dialysis patients.


About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

William Caldera has been at KSAT since 2003. He covers a wide range of stories including breaking news, weather, general assignments and sports.