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Medical Moment: Pet & art therapy

Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 9:40 PM EST
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Pet therapy has been used by patients who are struggling with mental health conditions, like depression and PTSD, or are battling a chronic illness like cancer.

Art therapy helps people express feelings and emotions.

Now, scientists are studying a program that uses both forms of therapy for patients struggling with hearing loss.

Installation artist Sankhya Jejurikar’s health journey began in 2013 when doctors found an acoustic neuroma in her brain.

“It’s a slow growing tumor,” she says. “Fortunately, it’s benign, but it sits on these three nerves.”

Last year, Sankhya needed surgery to remove the tumor, but she still feels the effects.

“I’ve lost complete hearing in my left ear,” she says. “It is isolating, frustrating.”

“We’re very quick as physicians to give antidepressants to our patients or say, ‘okay, yes, yes, you’re feeling sad, here you go,’” says Soma Sengupta, neuro-oncologist at the University of Cincinnati.

Instead enter this fuzzy little guy… the first half of a scientific study on patient well-being for people with hearing loss.

“So, the robotic pets allow us to have that companionship without the burden of feeding, taking care of a pet or cleaning after a pet,” says Claudia Rebola, researcher and designer at the University of Cincinnati.

The second part involves art.

“When people make art, it tends to reduce their defenses,” says Meera Rastogi, psychologist and art therapist at the University of Cincinnati.

“What if you combine these modalities and digitalize them?” Sengupta says.

The researchers designed a self-guided art therapy app. For 12 weeks, patients do their own art therapy, then answer questions about their mood.

Then half of the patients take home a robotic pup. The pets have “smart collars” sensors record the number and length of interactions. Researchers want to quantify how adding pets to the art increases well-being.

Researchers say the COVID shutdown reminded providers of the importance of finding ways for patients to access healthcare remotely. The art and robot pet therapy give patients tools to take personal control of their mental well-being.

They’re applying for funding to expand the trial.

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