Feb. 19, 2006 — -- Nico the Shih-Tzu and Kolya the Great Pyrenees make the rounds at the UCLA Medical Center.

For the sickest patients, like Elizabeth Pratt, who had a heart transplant three years ago and now is back in the hospital, the dogs may not only lighten moods. They may also help mend bodies.

"He knows who the sickest patients are and just zones right in on them," said Kolya's owner, Betty Walsh.

Researchers at the hospital studied the effects of dog therapy on nearly 80 heart patients. They inserted a long catheter into the heart to measure a change in stress levels before and after the dog visits. After just 12 minutes with the dogs, the patients improved.

"The results of the study validated what we thought to be true all along and what we could see with our own eyes but we just didn't have it tangible," said Kathie Cole, a cardiac nurse at UCLA.

Richard Allred is being evaluated as a transplant candidate and also spends time with the 135-pound Koyla.

"I was looking forward to it, but I could not imagine a dog this size coming to visit me," he said. "This dog is huge!"

'The Dogs Keep Our Hearts Alive'

The researchers found that anxiety levels fell 24 percent and stress hormone rates fell 17 percent. Pulmonary pressures dropped 10 percent.

"It means that the patients will have less trouble breathing, will have a better prognosis," said Dr. Joshua Goldhaber, director of the hospital's coronary care unit. "Those are the key things from a patient's perspective -- plus they'll feel better mentally."

The researchers also found that dogs may even help slow the progression of heart disease.

Dr. George Dennish, a San Diego cardiologist recommends that his patients own some sort of pet.

"It takes a little bit of probing to find out whether they are going to respond well, but in certain cases I've gone ahead and actually recommended that they get a pet," he said.

Animals may provide a bedside manner that nurses and doctors cannot.

"What the docs do is keep us alive physically with the drugs and whatever else we have to take," Pratt said. "But the dogs keep our hearts alive."