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A study by Vall d’Hebron shows that canine-assisted therapy is effective in the treatment of fetal alcohol syndrome

Vall d'Hebron estudi SAF
Thursday, 8 October, 2020

The study has shown that children with fetal alcohol syndrome enhance their social skills, better regulate behavior and show an improvement in the severity of the disorder.

study carried out by professionals from the Psychiatry Services at Vall d’Hebron with the collaboration of CTAC (Center for Dog-Assisted Therapy) and Probitas Foundation shows that dog-assisted therapy is effective in patients with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Fetal alcohol syndrome is a pathology related to alcohol consumption during pregnancy. As Dr. Nuria Gómez, psychiatrist and head of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Program at the Psychiatry Service at Vall d’Hebron, “the intake of alcohol during pregnancy can cause damage to the development of central nervous system. These damages cause patients to present various symptoms, such as cognitive, psychological, behavioral and social problems”. Patients have difficulties in emotional control and behavioral self-regulation, difficulties in understanding social norms, deficits in daily life skills and learning. Without proper diagnosis and approach, they can suffer school failure, substance abuse and legal problems. Most patients who require medical care are children and adolescents. This pathology has no cure, so it also affects adults, although it can improve.

In 2018, Vall d’Hebron, with the collaboration of CTAC and Probitas Foundation, was the first center in the world to use dog-assisted therapy to treat fetal alcohol syndrome. In these sessions, patients interact with dogs in therapies led by a psychologist and with the presence of a CTAC technician. In each session, a series of objectives are established (such as improving tolerance to frustration) that are worked with different exercises. As Laura Vidal, psychologist at the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Program, explains, patients with FAS have many problems communicating through verbal language. In this way, “dogs are facilitators of therapy, since, with another type of language, they mobilize affective and communicative resources in patients”. Through games, patients connect emotionally with dogs thanks to the help of the psychologist and the technician.


Improvements in three major aspects of the pathology

As Dr. Nuria Gómez states, “we have now carried out the first scientific study in the world to evaluate the efficacy of assisted therapy with dogs in minors suffering fetal alcohol syndrome”. 33 patients between 6 and 18 years old have participated in this study. They were divided into two groups: patients receiving only pharmacological therapy and patients receiving dog-assisted therapy and pharmacological therapy. There were six individual sessions first and then six group sessions. The main conclusions are that children with FAS who attend dog-assisted therapy improve more than the other group in their social skills, regulate their behavior and present a general improvement in their disorder. In this sense, as Laura Vidal adds, “we have seen that, thanks to dog-assisted therapy, patients communicate better with the family and express their feelings better, present fewer risky behavior, better self-regulate, become less frustrated, control their impulsivity better and have fewer tantrums”.

The implementation of canine-assisted therapy in Vall d’Hebron is the result of an agreement with Probitas Foundation in collaboration with CTAC. Vall d’Hebron does a multidisciplinary follow-up of these patients, since they participate, in the treatment, the Psychiatry Service and, in their diagnosis, the mentioned service and the Genetics area and the Neurology, Radiology and Neurophysiology Services. The Ophthalmology and Endocrinology Services also participate in assessing possible complications. In Vall d’Hebron, more than 400 children and adolescents have already been treated with this pathology in the last three years.


About CTAC

The Center for Canine-Assisted Therapies aims to improve the quality of life of people through animal-assisted interventions.


About Probitas Foundation

Probitas Foundation is a non-profit organization that aims to improve health of the most vulnerable people locally and internationally. Mental health of children and young people and innovative therapies in collaboration with hospitals and entities are priority axes of the Foundation in the local health program.

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