Managing Treatments

Pet Therapy Can Help Cancer Patients Who Love Dogs

A visit from a therapy dog can bring smiles during cancer treatment while also alleviating stress and depression a patient may be feeling.

As a pet owner, you know the power of pet therapy to boost your mood when you’re not feeling well. If you or someone you love has cancer, don’t be so quick to shy away from your pets because of lethargy or fear of infection. Your four-legged friend might be just what you need. When the power of pets is used along with medical therapy, such as cancer treatment, to improve a patient’s overall well being, it’s formally called Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), according to the American Humane Association, and the practice is growing in the cancer community.

Researchers are currently working to prove all the ways pet therapy can help cancer patients through treatment. If you’re lucky, you may find that “therapy dogs” (not to be confused with “service dogs,” who help disabled populations) are allowed in hospital rooms or at the location of your cancer treatments.

What Are the Benefits?

The American Humane Association’s “Canines and Childhood Cancer” (CCC) clinical trial is currently underway at five children’s hospitals nationwide with nearly 100 patients and 30 therapy dogs participating. This study will be the first and largest clinical trial to scientifically document the use and effects of animals in cancer treatment and will measure the well being for the children with cancer, their parents and the therapy dogs themselves. In their review of previously published studies on the subject, they found the reported benefits of receiving pet therapy include decreased stress, less loneliness and depression, increased physical skills and improved social skills.

In addition, a recent study, found in The Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology, showed that head and neck cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, who also received daily AAT, saw significant increases in both social and emotional well being.

How Are Caregivers Affected?

Dr. Amy McCullough, the national director of humane research and therapy at the American Humane Association, says she found something surprising in the preliminary results in the CCC study so far: “The dogs are helping the parents as well as the children, which was unexpected. Cancer in a child affects the parents deeply and seeing their child smile and relax with the dogs during cancer treatment is helping parents relax, too.”

She also reported some preliminary results on the children’s blood pressure and pulse before and after treatment sessions with dog (compared to children not receiving AAT), suggesting the dog calms the patient. She says they’re also studying whether pet therapy during cancer treatment can help kids overcome problems at school and even help with the physical symptoms of nausea and pain.

“Kids don’t want to get in the car to go to chemo treatments,” says Dr. McCullough, “But when there is a dog involved with the chemo treatment, they’re actually excited to go.” Dr. McCullough is hopeful the findings from the CCC study will help increase the use of pet therapy dogs in hospitals, and more specifically, in oncology wards and cancer centers.

How Can Your Pets at Home Help?

Be sure to tell your oncologist what type of pet you have at home and how you like to handle them so you know any specific warnings and hygiene rules, depending on your type of cancer and treatment. And, keep your pet’s vaccines up to date before you begin your cancer treatment. If you have a dog at home, you might find extra encouragement to keep up with daily walks during cancer treatment, when you’re able. Doctors say keeping active and getting outside daily is important to helping you feel better during treatment.

Our pet therapy program has been expanded to the Infusion Center at the UVA Cancer Center.

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Naomi Mannino
Naomi Mannino