Pet owners know the comfort of having a furry friend in the house, and the sense of calm they feel when playing, petting, or snuggling with their animals has been introduced into the patient care setting.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been used to lessen symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for military personnel, anxiety for patients in long-term medical care, and more recently, has been studied in patients with cancer.1,2 Practitioners of AAT aim to lessen stress and anxiety by helping patients focus more on the joy that animals can bring during each visit and less on their own physical and emotional discomfort.

Improving Quality of Life with Animal-Assisted Therapy

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The results of a study that included 42 patients with head and neck cancer who received AAT were recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Investigators looked at how animal-assisted visits affected the quality of life (QOL) of patients with high symptom burden, 30 of whom had stage IV disease.

During multi-modal radiation therapy, patients were evaluated for changes in existential well-being (EWB), a specific measurement of QOL. Despite a significant decline in physical well-being (PWB; P<0.001) and functional well-being (FWB; P=0.003), social well-being (SWB; P= 0.03) increased significantly in patients who received AAT.3

Another small study of patients undergoing radiation therapy for their cancer found that the patients who received dog visits viewed their health as improved over the 4-week period during which the study was conducted.4

Why and how AAT helps patients is explained by Dawn A. Marcus, MD, Associate Professor, Pain Evaluation and Treatment Institute, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pittsburgh, PA.

“Therapy dogs are trained to be obedient, calm, and provide comfort to the people that they visit,” she says in a video that describes the science behind therapy dogs.  Medical benefits of therapy visits include a decrease in stress hormones, as well as an increase in endorphins and oxytocin levels, according to Dr. Marcus.5

Research with an expanded number of patient participants is needed to more fully demonstrate the efficacy of AAT in the cancer setting, but those who have experienced it report an improvement in QOL,3,7 and in some cases, a decrease in pain.6

“We know that it [AAT] also reduces the perceptions of pain because it helps people to relax and that’s really important,” says Connie Vanbilliard, child life specialist, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, CA.7

Unconditional Love: The Language of Healing

“Animals have an innate sense of knowing when someone needs comfort,” says Pat Brenner, a volunteer with Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society), an organization that provides loving trained animals to institutions for patient visits.7 Pet Partners has a training program that enables pet owners to become certified volunteers and to take their pets to a variety of institutions, including hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers.  Pet Partners allows volunteers, also referred to as handlers, to bring dogs, cats, and rabbits to the bedsides of ailing patients.

Hospitals, such as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), partner with organizations like Pet Partners to bring animals into the clinical setting. These include Angels on a Leash, a charity of the Westminster Kennel Club, which provides therapy dogs to hospitals around the country.

The Good Dog Foundation is another charitable organization that provides therapy dogs to people in the health care, social service, and educational community. Similarly, Therapy Dogs International (TDI), established in 1976, is dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers. Since 2012, TDI has approximately 24,750 dog/handler teams registered to visit a variety of institutions.

Despite the fact that the patient’s malignancy is physically unaffected, bringing therapy animals into the clinical setting has been shown to have a positive influence. With the variety of options available to coordinate these services, healthcare teams can tap into these resources to help their patients better cope and manage their disease from an emotional perspective.


1. Pet therapy: Man’s best friend as healer. Last accessed September 6, 2013.

2. Canine-assisted therapy in military medicine. United States Army Med J. 2011-2012. Last accessed September 5, 2013.

3. Fleishman SB, Rosenwald V, Homel P. Effects of animal-assisted visits on quality of life during multi-modal radiation therapy: chemotherapy regimens. J Clin Oncol. 31, 2013 (suppl; abstr e20607)

4. Johnson RA, Meadows RL, Haubner JS, et al. Animal-assisted activity among patients with cancer: effects on mood, fatigue, self-perceived health, and sense of coherence. Oncol Nursing Forum. 2008;35(2):225-232.

5. Marcus, DA. The science behind animal-assisted therapy, current pain and headache reports. 2013 Volume 17, Issue 4.. Related video of Dr. Marcus explaining the science behind pet therapy. Last accessed September 4, 2013.

6. Engelman S. Palliative care and use of animal-assisted therapy. J of Death and Dying. Omega (Westport). 2013;67(1-2):63-67.

7. Pet Partners Featured Video. June 18, 2013.  Last accessed September 4, 2013.