Of Hospitals, Therapy Animals, and Kids with Cancer

Earlier this year, a study by a Brazilian research team on hospitalized children undergoing treatment for various forms of cancer indicated that animal-assisted therapy has tremendous potential to aid the anxiety and suffering of these patients. This intervention was even helpful for the attending caregivers. Twenty-four children were exposed in various weekly hospital-based activities to two well-trained therapy dogs. The results were very encouraging and speak to the power of the human-animal bond to promote comfort and healing. The children displayed physical and psychological changes for the better. Natural chemicals in the body that promote a fight or flight response in the presence of stressful situations were reduced, and helpful, relaxation chemicals were released. This contributed to the children experiencing their hospital stay very differently than without the healing presence of the animals. They even seemed to experience less pain, which must surely be a very great relief to the children and their caregivers. An excerpt from the scientific paper is included below.
“Consistent with the findings of previous studies, our results indicated improvement in pain and psychological parameters (irritation, stress, anxiety, mental confusion, and tension) of the children undergoing outpatient oncological treatment as perceived by the caregivers and children, with significant effect sizes. The improvement observed after participation in three AAT sessions may be directly related to the benefits of the human-animal relationship, which favours psychological and endocrine changes in the human body. Previous studies have shown that visual communication and touching animals can trigger the release of various substances in the human body, including oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, and reduce the baseline cortisol level… These hormones and cytokines in combination may contribute to a reduction of pain, anxiety, and stress and increase the sensation of pleasure and relaxation by children undergoing cancer treatment.”

The paper itself is available to anyone through an open-access website. The citation to help retrieve the entire work is…

“Silva NB, Oso´rio FL (2018) Impact of an animal-assisted therapy programme on physiological and psychosocial variables of paediatric oncology patients.”

20120903__20120904_A2_CD04HOSPITALPETp1

It may be that therapy animals are better than clowns for children frightened and suffering a serious disease and confined to a hospital setting.

More information about the power of animals to heal can be found in Zoodulcis: Our Fascination with Animals.  Also, if you are an animal lover, why not order pet food from any link to Amazon on this site.  One hundred percent of the commission from your purchase goes to an animal rescue non-profit organization.

2 comments

  1. I have seen how wonderful Animal Therapy is for everyone. I have worked in several assisted living/ nursing homes and hospice care center, all either had animals living on the premises or had certified groups come in with animals. The positive effect on residents and their families and the staff is visible the minute the animals arrive or walk into the room.
    To me one of the keys is well trained animals and handlers. Being able to read the behavior of the patient and animals. Knowing that not everyone is in a place to have animals near them.
    My cousin who is a veterinarian cautioned me about exposing especially dogs to certain kinds of illnesses as they can contract them from humans. I dont remember the whole list but they seemed to be mostly respiratory illnesses.

    • It’s true that not every animal is dispositionally suited to be a therapy animal. The importance of good training of the animal and the handler cannot be over-stressed. I read recently that a hospital in Denver is using therapy animals in the children’s ward more and more, but, they limit interactions to 10 minutes until the patient, the animal and the handler get to know each other a bit. I think that makes good sense. If it does not seem to be a good fit, then the staff and parents are consulted as to whether to continue. Sometimes continuing is better than canceling, since a shy child may warm up to the animal better than anyone might have guessed. And not just children. Some older people need a little time to get used to a therapy animal. I once took 3 baby goats to a nursing home. All of the participants were immediately charmed except one. She wouldn’t even let her attendant wheel her into the rec room, but instead watched from out in the hallway. Her attendant mentioned to me that Iris had been terrified of animals all of her life. I was therefore quite surprised when after about 10 minutes she asked to enter the rec room. When I placed a baby goat in her arms, her smile would have lit up Madison Square Gardens. Her attendant literally stared open-mouthed, which many of the residents teased her about after a few minutes. Iris just needed a little time to get her bearings and be certain of a measure of safety. I never knew what she may have said about that interaction later, I only know that the facility begged me to come back anytime.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.