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Caring for Horses May Help Ease Symptoms in Alzheimer's Patients

May 07, 2014 09:41 AM EDT

Spending time with horses may help ease symptoms of Alzheimer's disease patients, a new study, the first of its kind, shows.

Members of The Ohio State University teamed up with an equine therapy facility and adult daycare center to help Alzheimer's patients feed, groom, bathe and walk horses.

"We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can-absolutely," Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work at Ohio State, said in a news release. "The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior."

More than 5 million people in the United States are suffering from Alzheimer's disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alzheimer's is known for its effect on memory loss, but individuals can also experience mood changes, increased anxiety and depression.

"Our focus is on the 'now,'" Dabelko-Schoeny added. "What can we do to make them feel better and enjoy themselves right now? Even if they don't remember it later, how can we help in this moment?"

Researchers monitored 16 patients and how interacting with the horses once a week for a month influenced them. Equine therapy is not a novel idea, at least when considering other diseases. According to the research team, it is a common treatment for children and teenagers with emotional and developmental disorders.

To track patient behavior, researchers used a scoring system called the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale. Staff watched for participants who fidgeted, resisted care, became upset or lost their temper.

What they observed was that participants appeared to enjoy their time at the farm, smiling, laughing and talking to the horses. Even those who normally acted withdrawn became fully engaged in the experience.

On a scale of zero to four - zero meaning participants never exhibited problem behavior and four meaning they always behaved in such a way - those who went to the farm were an average of one point lower than their peers.

Besides having a more positive mood, patients also became more physically active because they were in an environment that challenged them to do so.

"I think another positive influence for these clients was the environment. They found the quietness and smells of the country very relaxing and restful. This was in contrast to their normal day care environment and their intercity dwelling," Gwendolen Lorch, assistant professor of veterinary clinical medicine at Ohio State, speculated. "It is difficult to tell what factors made this successful, but we do know that it was most likely a combination of events."

The findings were published in the journal Anthrozoös.

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