May 15, 2016
2 min read

PTSD symptoms improve in veterans after dog adoption

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ATLANTA — Veterans with PTSD who adopted a dog from a local Humane Society reported becoming more physically and socially active, with improvement in overall happiness, according to research presented at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting.

Stephen L. Stern, MD, adjunct professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, and fellow researchers conducted a pilot study of veterans (42% women) who met DSM-5 criteria for current PTSD and were receiving active treatment for the disorder.

“PTSD ... is frequently associated with depression and social isolation,” Stern said during a press conference at the meeting. “We got the idea for the study from the many veterans in our clinics who told us how much their dogs had helped them.”

Veterans studied “were free from current substance abuse/dependence, mania, psychosis, or significant suicidal or homicidal ideation and had not lived with a dog or other companion animal for the past 12 months,” the researchers wrote.

The veterans were randomized at the end of an initial evaluation to either immediately adopt a dog (n=9; dog group) as a supplement to usual care or be on a three-month waitlist prior to adopting a dog (n = 10; control group). Adoption and related costs during the study were provided with no cost to the veterans.

Mixed effects regression models with repeated measures were used to analyze quantitative data.

There was not a significant difference in age, sex, ethnicity or type of traumatic event in the veterans in the two cohorts.

The dog group had mean PCL-5 scores improve by 15.2 points, which was considered a clinically significant change. The control group had mean PCL-5 scores improve by 7.8 points.

The dog group saw a mean improvement of 4.1 points for the PHQ-9 depression scale, considered a significant change, and 7.8 on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, while the control group saw a decrease of 0.7 points in the depression scale and a decrease of 3.4 points in the loneliness scale (P = .010, PHQ-9 depression scale; P = .031, UCLA Loneliness Scale).

Most veterans in the dog group reported in semi-structured interviews that they had developed close bonds with the pets, and had become more physically and socially active. Improvements in overall happiness, the ability to cope with stress and relationship with others also were reported.

“Within a month of adoptions, most [respondents] reported a positive experience of companionship and affection from their dogs,” Stern reported. “Pet dog adoption helped to alleviate PTSD symptoms, depression and loneliness in most of the veterans in our study.”

“Although further research is needed, these initial findings suggest that adopting a pet dog may prove a useful adjunct to treatment for veterans with PTSD,” the researchers concluded. – by Bruce Thiel


Stern SL, et al. A study of dog adoption in veterans with PTSD. Presented at: American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting; May 14-18, 2016; Atlanta.

Disclosure: Support for the research was provided by Rehabilitation Research and Development Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs.