Study: Cancer Patients Benefit From Therapy Dogs

A first-of-its-kind investigation documented the impact of animal-assisted therapy on adult cancer patients.

Therapy dogs lifted the spirits of adult cancer patients by improving their emotional well-being and quality of life, according to research co-sponsored by veterinary drug manufacturer Zoetis Inc.

The clinical study, published this week in the Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology, involved patients receiving combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy for gastrointestinal, head or neck cancers.

A questionnaire called the FACT-G (Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy—General) found that the patients’ emotional well-being jumped over the course of animal-assisted visits even as they underwent “marked and significant declines in both physical and functional well-being,” according to the researchers.

Principal investigator Stewart B. Fleishman, M.D., of New York’s Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital called the work “the first such definitive study in cancer.”

“Having an animal-assisted visit significantly improved [the patients’] quality of life and humanized a high-tech treatment,” Fleishman said. “Patients said they would have stopped their treatments before completion except for the presence of the certified Good Dog Foundation therapy dog and volunteer handler.”

Besides Zoetis, the New York-based Good Dog Foundation and the Pfizer Foundation contributed to the research.

“There is mounting evidence in human and veterinary medicine that the emotional bond between people and companion animals can have a positive impact [on] emotional and physical health,” said J. Michael McFarland, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, the group director of Companion Animal Veterinary Operations at Zoetis.

“These new results help advance our understanding of the value of animal-assisted therapy in cancer treatment and point to the ways the oncology and animal health communities can work together in supporting cancer patients achieve the best possible treatment outcomes,” Dr. McFarland said.

Thirty-seven adult patients with a mean age of 57 completed the six-week study, receiving daily 15- to 20-minute animal-assisted visits [AAVs].

The researchers noted that AAVs are common in cancer centers “but there is little evidence of their usefulness.” The findings may help put the uncertainty to rest.

“AAVs add a valuable element to the environment of care for patients receiving multimodal cancer treatment,” the authors concluded. “A more widespread presence in cancer treatment centers should be encouraged.”

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