This research is welcome news for those with compromised immune systems and pain due to cancer and its treatments. Not only is AAI a cost-effective and powerful therapeutic intervention, but it can help patients in unexpected ways. The simple act of petting a dog distracts patients from their own internal experience, enabling their physical, emotional, and spiritual pain to take a back seat for those few precious moments. Focusing on something outside of oneself provides a sense of connection and meaning.
Interacting with a dog also offers an opportunity to relate to others, creating feelings of trust and therefore enabling staff members and patients to engage in therapeutic relationships more readily. For example, an extensive study of the use of dogs in therapy in North America, funded by Alberta Health’s innovation fund, compared animal assisted therapy with traditional therapy for patients in treatment for depression and anxiety.4 The patients who met with therapists who used dogs in their sessions looked forward to therapy more, felt more comfortable talking to the therapist, and felt they performed better at home and school than patients receiving traditional therapy. Pet ownership on its own seemed to moderate the effects of mental illness. Patients who had pets were less depressed or anxious at the outset and showed lower scores on the depression severity scale after therapy compared with those who did not own pets.4
There are also direct physical and strength building benefits to AAI. Dogs need activity, and this need can be an impetus for patients to engage in exercise alongside the dog, an often much needed aspect of holistic patient care. For patients who are hospitalized or institutionalized for long periods of time, the risk of depression, anxiety, and isolation becomes much more prevalent. Visiting with an animal can stave off the negative aspects of living in an unnaturally sterile environment; it can reconnect them to the world outside, to nature, and to life itself. The presence of a loving, warm, and accepting creature can create a deep sense of connection, healing, and hope amidst a very difficult time and is an invaluable aspect of patient care and quality of life.
Erin Columbus is clinical supervisor/program director of Online Services at CancerCare.
1. Pfizer Animal Health and American Human Association partner to conduct research on the power of the human-animal bond in pediatric cancer patients [news release]. American Humane Association Web site. http://www.americanhumane.org/animals/animal-welfare-news/pfizer-animal-health-and-american-humane-association.html. Accessed September 9, 2014.
2. Johnson RA. Editorial: Human-animal interaction, illness prevention, and wellness promotion. Am Behav Sci. 2003;47(1):5-6.
3. Johnson RA, Meadows RL, Haubner JS, Sevedge K. Human-animal interaction: a complementary/alternative medical (CAM) intervention for cancer patients. Am Behav Sci. 2003;47(1):55-69.
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4. Dobbs BM. The Chimo Project—improving mental health through animal assisted therapy: Independent evaluator’s final report. http://www.angelfire.com/mh/chimo/pdf/Chimo-Final_Report-Revised.pdf. Accessed September 9, 2014.