Pets healing veterans: PTSD and canine companionship

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Every day, about 20 military veterans in the United States die by suicide – more than are lost daily in combat. Many of these veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder transitioning back to civilian life.

A new program is bringing canines and veterans together to save lives.

Marine veteran Lyndon Villone is never without his service dog, Ice, by his side.

"Ice is a Siberian husky and he just turned 8 in July," said Villone, who founded Heel the Heroes.

Villone suffered from PTSD after returning from Iraq and learning he lost six fellow soldiers to suicide.

"It was after that that I brought the shotgun back to my parent's house and went to sleep with him underneath the picnic table," he said.

"Unfortunately, the statistics show that 20 veterans a day are taking their own life, but that's underreported," Florida Atlantic University professor Dr. Cheryl Krause-Parello said.

Krause-Parello first witnessed the bond between Villone and Ice.

"It was like watching him pet his trauma away," she said.

She created C-P.A.W.W., pronounced C-paw, which stands for Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors, to study the connection between them.

"They can help them sleep better, get off medications that maybe they were on for insomnia, anxiety," Krause-Parello said.

Her team uses saliva samples from veterans to measure stress levels.

"People are really looking at this now as alternative nonpharmacological intervention," she said.

"I spent 15 months in Iraq," U.S. Army combat veteran Austin Capers said.

Capers was taking antidepressants before meeting his boxer, Rita.

"I think had I not had Rita in my life, I would still be on those today," he said.

Krause-Parello says veterans returning to civilian life need a purpose these pets can provide. But training a service dog can cost up to $30,000.

"Service dogs for veterans with PTSD or invisible wounds, it's not reimbursable," she said.

She's hoping her research will change that.

"I probably would have made a very poor decision and I probably would have taken my life," Villone said.

Krause-Parello's work through C-P.A.W.W. is funded by donations and grants. The program recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to follow veterans interested in training a service dog not for themselves but for other veterans.

Villone started his own nonprofit called Heel the Heroes, which helps veterans reconnect to society and their families through coping mechanisms and training their own pets for emotional support.

RESEARCH SUMMARY
PETS HEALING VETS
REPORT #2705

BACKGROUND: The total number of suicides among veterans has increased four of the last five years on record. From 2007 to 2017, the rate of suicide among veterans jumped almost 50 percent. Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Americans who never served in the military. For female veterans, the risk factor is 2.2 times more likely. Heather O'Beirne Kelly, director of military and veterans' health policy at the American Psychological Association, says "The VA is really thinking about this and using the most up-to-date research. But it's a very complicated problem, it's a multi-faceted problem. It's tragic we can't all figure this out more quickly." Department officials have repeatedly emphasized that cutting down the number of veteran suicides will require more than just government programs, noting that nearly two-thirds of those deaths are among veterans who are not using VA health services. (Source: https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/10/09/new-veteran-suicide-numbers-raise-concerns-among-experts-hoping-for-positive-news/)

PREVENTION AND TREATMENT: The main treatments for people with PTSD are counseling (known as "talk" therapy or psychotherapy), medications, or both. With cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapist helps the service member understand and change how thoughts and beliefs about the trauma, and about the world, cause stress and maintain current symptoms. Through group therapy, service members can talk about their trauma or learn skills to manage symptoms of PTSD. Many groups are effective and popular among those who have had similar traumatic experiences. Acupuncture, a component of traditional Chinese medicine, and yoga Nidra, a relaxation and meditative form of yoga, have been examined for PTSD in a limited number of small trials and the early results are promising. Also being studied are herbal and dietary supplements. They have shown some effectiveness, but the results of these small trials provide insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of antidepressant medication. Most patients with PTSD will achieve some symptom relief with an SSRI, although the evidence of effectiveness is less convincing in combat PTSD compared to PTSD due to other traumas. (Source: https://www.military.com/benefits/veterans-health-care/ptsd-treatment-options.html)

NEW WAY TO TREAT PTSD: Results from a new clinical trial of active-duty service members have shown that an injection in the neck called stellate ganglion block, or SGB, is an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The Army-funded trial shows that SGB injections reduced PTSD symptoms at a rate about twice that of a placebo. Dr. Sean Mulvaney, a ROSM physician in Annapolis, former Navy SEAL and Army Physician, helped pioneer stellate ganglion block (SGB) as a PTSD therapy. He first realized the potential for SGB a decade ago after reading about a similar procedure used to treat hot flashes. SGB works by suppressing the body's fight or flight response. The therapy consists of a single injection near the front of the neck and takes just a few minutes. However, SGB is not a cure for PTSD. During an SGB procedure, a doctor injects a local anesthetic deep into a cluster of nerves in the neck called the stellate ganglion. These nerves help regulate the body's "fight or flight" response, which becomes erratic in people with PTSD. (Source: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sgb-for-ptsd-new-army-funded-research-shows-promise-for-ptsd-treatment-featured-on-60-minutes/ and https://www.rosm.org/annapolis-60minutes-sgb/)