What is animal-assisted therapy?
Many programs provide animal-assisted therapy to help patients recover functions that have been affected by a serious illness or its treatment. For example, at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, doctors can prescribe animal-assisted therapy through the Welcoming Animals Giving Support (WAGS) program.
Each Saturday, six to eight volunteer handlers bring their dogs to MD Anderson to participate in WAGS, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The dogs and handlers have gone through an extensive training program sponsored by Caring Critters, a nonprofit animal-assisted therapy group.
Current dog volunteers include golden retrievers, German shepherds, fox terriers, poodles, and dachshunds. Each dog serves a special function in helping patients achieve their physical therapy goals. For example, patients who need to work on standing for long periods of time might groom or pet a small dog on a table. Small dogs also can curl up in patients’ laps to help them work on their sensory or fine motor skills through petting. Other patients who are working on balance might walk with a large dog on a leash. Large dogs also can help patients develop coordination by playing fetch and other games.
The dogs can make the hospital environment seem more like home and help remind patients about life outside of the hospital. The dogs also encourage and motivate patients to get better so that the patients can return home and see their own pets.
Research has shown that dogs can have positive physiological effects on humans. One study showed that levels of beta-endorphin, oxytocin, and dopamine—chemicals that promote a sense of well-being and help reduce stress and anxiety—increase in both humans and dogs after a positive interaction. These interactions also lower people’s levels of cortisol, which is sometimes called the “stress hormone” because it is released as a response to anxiety or stress.
Other studies have been published on patients’ pain levels after interacting with pets. One study found that patients who sat quietly for 20 minutes reported four times more pain than did patients who interacted with an animal for the same amount of time. Because animals can help reduce pain, many centers that offer animal-assisted therapy use animals to distract and comfort children who are undergoing medical procedures.
The National Institutes of Health established a research fund in 2008 to further explore the science behind human-animal interaction.
Animal-assisted therapy is not for all patients, however. Patients with allergies, low white blood cell counts, infection control issues, or psychiatric disorders are not candidates for animal-assisted therapy.
The dogs themselves do not contribute to infection risk. WAGS, like most animal-assisted therapy programs, requires dogs to be screened by a veterinarian before they can participate in the program. Also, several studies have shown that animals do not increase infection rates in hospitals. A study of 2,381 dog visits to 1,690 patients at Huntington Memorial Hospital in California found no increase in zoonotic (spread from animals to humans) infections over a 5-year period.
Dr. Malacara believes that the benefits far outweigh the risks of animal-assisted therapy. “Animal-assisted therapy is a collaborative, positive program—especially for cancer patients. They benefit physically, mentally, and emotionally,” she said. “The change in the patients after interacting with the dogs is remarkable. Our patients really look forward to their Saturday sessions.”
— J. Delsigne
Other articles in OncoLog, April 2014 issue: