Patient's Best Friend: Therapy Animals Help Relieve Anxiety of Cancer

When dealing with cancer treatments, even a momentary distraction can be a welcome relief. Enter therapy animals. With their unconditional love and focused attention, therapy animals can be of both physical and emotional benefit to patients undergoing cancer treatment.

Using animals in therapeutic settings dates back to a 1792 Quaker establishment in England. And these programs are quite popular today, too. In 2011, Therapy Dogs International reported about 24,000 therapy dog-handler teams in the U.S. and Canada.

Because of their remarkable ability to soothe the soul, therapy animals are becoming more common in court rooms, schools and healthcare settings like New York-based Mount Sinai Medical Center—where dogs like Kerry brighten days for patients while making her rounds.

With her approach to life, this canine and her handler, Cathy Huber, help patients temporarily forget the anxiety and fear that often affect cancer patients.

When they arrive for a visit, they bring a moment of warmth and wonder to patients. Huber knows the importance of such moments: Her husband, Peter, died from kidney cancer earlier this year. Volunteering with Kerry helps her tremendously, she says.

Evidence shows that animals can help certain patients with chronic diseases and serious illnesses, such as cancer. A 2007 Italian study published in the journal Anticancer Research showed that patients experienced physiological and psychological improvements when therapy dogs were present during chemotherapy treatments. The patient group engaged in animal-assisted activities had increased blood oxygen levels and reported decreased depression.

Training Criteria

Maryann Coletti, RN, is the volunteer resource program coordinator for the TOUCH (Therapy of Unique Canine Helpers) Dog Program at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She sees firsthand how patients respond to loving animals. Survey data she collected from patients at Siteman’s infusion center showed that 77 percent of respondents reported feeling happier and more relaxed after a TOUCH dog therapy visit. Dog-handler teams are trained and certified through a 12-week course in partnership with Support Dogs, Inc., Coletti says.

Becoming a therapy animal isn’t for every pet. For example, therapy dogs must have basic obedience and a good temperament, Huber says. “The most important thing is that the dog is calm and able to sit with strangers.”

Relieving a patient’s stress is hard work for Kerry. And Huber watches Kerry’s relaxed disposition for signs of stress—that way everyone stays safe.

“Any dog can be trained, but if a dog is sensitive to noise, for example, it may not be a good fit,” says Dawn Marcus, MD, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Marcus has written a book on therapy animals and volunteers at hospitals with her two trained wheaten terriers.

Some dogs train more easily, Marcus says. “The most common therapy dogs are golden retrievers and Labradors. Poodles are also easy to train.”

To create a sense of normalcy, dogs are exposed to medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and blood pressure cuffs, says Moschell Coffey, director of Strategic Growth, Communications and Operations with The Good Dog Foundation in New York City.

To become a certified therapy team with The Good Dog Foundation, the person and the pooch must practice drills repeatedly until they achieve mastery, says Coffey. Plus, a veterinarian-certified clean bill of health with up-to-date vaccinations is needed.

Rules of Visitation

At Coletti’s institution, dogs receive hand sanitizer to give medical staff and patients assurance that the animal isn’t inadvertently transporting bacteria or viruses. Handlers also minimize germs. “We provide anti-bacterial spray for handlers. It’s used every time someone has contact with a dog,” she says.

Dogs are bathed 24 hours before patient visits, Coffey says. Plus, certain precautions allow even the sickest patients paw-to-paw exchanges. “We’ve been able to gain access into facilities even with immune-compromised patients.”

Depending on hospital policies or a patient’s preference, sometimes a fresh sheet is placed on a patient’s bed. This protocol helps prevent the spread of communicable diseases the dog may pick up while making rounds from patient to patient, Marcus says.

While not all cancer centers or facilities offer therapy animal visits, talk to your nurse or a local organization's volunteer coordinator, like Coletti, to learn about animal visitation schedules.

To find local programs or to learn more about enlisting your pet as a therapy animal, check the Pet Partners program, which also welcomes cats and many other animals. Pet Partners, formerly called the Delta Society (deltasociety.org), has various programs that incorporate many animals including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, horses, domesticated rats, llamas, donkeys, cockatoos and African gray parrots. The American Kennel Club also offers a comprehensive list of organizations at akc.org to consider.

“I’m so glad Peter suggested I do this because it’s given such a wonderful dimension to my life,” Huber says. “Life has been difficult; this gave me something else to focus on.”

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