Therapy Dogs and Cancer Patients

Study documents the benefits of pet therapy at a NYC hospital.
By JoAnna Lou, January 2015, Updated July 2018
















When I visited hospital patients as part of a therapy dog program, it was obvious that my Sheltie, Nemo, brought joy to what could be a depressing environment. But still most people view animal-assisted therapy as a "nice to have," not something that could have a significant effect on a patient's health.

That may all change with a new study at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York City. The collaboration between the hospital, therapy dog organization The Good Dog Foundation, animal health company Zoetis, and the Pfizer Foundation, is aiming to quantify the many benefits of animal-assisted therapy.

The research is the first that documents the benefits of pet therapy in adult cancer patients, and is by far the most rigorous study in this area. Dr. Stewart B. Fleishman, Founding Director of Cancer Supportive Services at Mount Sinai, says that this is a definitive study that uses the same scientific standards to examine the merits of animal-assisted therapy as they use for the cancer treatment itself. While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence on the positive effects, having hard data will help therapy dogs secure future funding and support.

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In the six week study, 37 patients received daily 15-20 minute assisted animal visits (AAV). The patients were at the hospital with aggressive cancers in the head and neck, and were receiving a combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy in advance of surgery. The patients were assessed at the beginning of the study (as a baseline), at the mid-point, and at the end. They measured satisfaction with the AAVs, ability to withstand treatment, lingering effect of AAV after treatment, and perception of social support. 

The researchers found that the patients showed an increase in social well-being over the course of the study, even after they underwent marked declines in both physical and functional well-being. After controlling for the reduction in physical well-being, they also found statistically significant increases in emotional well-being as well. Some patients even said that they would have stopped their treatments before completion if it weren't for the regular therapy dog visits.

Most hospital patients are lucky if they see one therapy dog during their hospital stay, let alone the daily visits. But hopefully this study will help make the case for adding regular animal assisted therapy to more comprehensive treatment plans. 

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.