Replacing Personal Health Aides With Companion Dogs Saves $13,000 A Year Per Disabled Patient, UB Study Shows Patients Experience Improved Self-Esteem, Well-Being, Sense of Control

By Lois Baker

Release Date: October 15, 1994 This content is archived.


NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Using specially trained companion dogs rather than paid health-care providers to assist persons with disabilities in their daily routine can save $13,000 a year per person and significantly improve the owner's quality of life, a University at Buffalo study has shown.

Karen Allen, Ph.D., assistant director of UB's Center for the Behavioral and Social Aspects of Health, and lead investigator on the study, said the results show that companion dogs can deliver a considerable savings in health-care dollars, in addition to improving the lives of their owners, and that insurance companies should cover their costs. Medicaid, the insurance provider for most persons with severely limiting disabilities, currently covers only human health-care providers, Allen said.

Allen, research assistant professor of family medicine, presented the results of the research here today (Saturday, Oct. 15) at the annual meeting of the Delta Society, a professional organization that studies the relationship between people, animals and the environment. James Blascovich, Ph.D., UB professor of psychology, was co-investigator.

The scientists conducted a prospective two-year trial involving 48 persons with spinal-cord injury, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury. Participants were divided equally and randomly into two groups. One group received their companion dogs one month after the trial began, the other at 13 months into the study. Members of both groups were assisted by family or paid care providers, as needed.

Companion dogs are trained individually to work with a specific owner. The dogs perform a wide variety of tasks, depending on their owner's needs -- from carrying backpacks, pushing buttons on wheelchairs and elevators and removing food from the refrigerator, to helping their masters out of a bathtub or swimming pool. Companion dogs costs about $5,000 to train and about $1,100 to maintain annually.

All study participants were assessed for psychological well-being, self-esteem, community integration (participation in activities outside of the home) and the amount of control they could exert over their lives at five points during the two years.

The findings showed that self-esteem, well-being, community integration and sense of control increased significantly during the two-year study in direct proportion to the amount of time spent with a companion dog. In addition, the number of hours of paid assistance needed dropped 78 percent, from an average of 44 hours per week initially to 9.8 hours per week at the study's end.

The researchers estimated that this reduction in the use of paid assistance resulted in a savings of $272, per week or $14,114 per year, per person, based on an $8 hourly wage. Subtracting the estimated $1,117 annual cost of maintaining the dog netted an average savings of $13,027 per year.

A comparison of assessments of self-esteem, well-being and community integration showed that the scores of study participants rose dramatically when the companion dog became part of their lives. Those who received their canine helpers at one month had significantly higher scores at 6 and 12 months than those who had not yet received theirs.

Scores of the second group rose significantly at 18 months, after five months with their companion dogs, and were on a par with the first group at the end of 24 months.

"These dogs fill a need in the lives of persons with severe disabilities," said Allen. "They help their owners accomplish tasks, but they also give emotional support. The dog takes care of the owner and the owner takes care of the dog. People need something to care for."

Allen said she hopes insurance providers will be take note of the savings that result from using companion dogs and agree to cover their costs in the future.