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Prescription for a Puppy: The Impact Service Pets Have on Cancer Patients’ Lives

Prescription for a Puppy: The Impact Service Pets Have on Cancer Patients’ Lives

Straight Talk about Mesothelioma, a blog series created by Michael T. Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncology specialist, as a resource for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.

A recent study in The Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology has revealed something pretty surprising — not only do therapy dogs improve the quality of life for patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, but they also inspire these patients to continue with their treatment.

Although this study made use of a sophisticated questionnaire to determine social and emotional well-being as effected by 15-20 minute animal-assisted visits over the course of treatment, the positive effects that a therapy animal may have on cancer patients are perhaps much more far reaching and varied than this.

New Study Cites a Long History

The study begins by citing the first documented effects of animals on improving human well-being. Interestingly, the first documented therapy animals were birds and other courtyard animals at an 18th century psychiatric facility in England.

More recent studies have found that of those discharged from a cardiac care unit, pet owners had an increased 1-year survival rate. In addition, contact with animals has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, decrease depression, and reduce pain perception in children.

Although the trend of “prescribing” therapy animals has continued throughout the years — for instance, U.S. Army veterans coping with PTSD were once encouraged by hospital staff to work with farm animals — the medical research community has perhaps not taken the potential benefits of therapy animals seriously until now. Dr. Stewart Fleishman, the principal researcher of this new study, pointed out: “[This is] the first such definitive study in cancer.”

Is All of the Anecdotal Evidence Just as Meaningful?

Although the positive effects of therapy animals on medical patients is only now beginning to be scientifically studied, anecdotal evidence is often sufficient enough to drive change in the medical community. Recently, many hospitals have instituted animal-assisted therapy programs for cancer patients based on the notion that animals can improve one’s emotional and physical well-being and therefore improve patient outcomes.

One such facility is the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University. Since introducing therapy animals as a component of medical treatment, everyone there — patients, families, doctors, and nurses — have noticed an improvement in their well-being.

One patient remarked:

“It’s never fun to be at the hospital. It’s uncomfortable to have needles in your arm and scary to undergo tests, but when I see the dogs I forget about my treatment. They ease the burden of being in the hospital and really make a big difference in my day.”

Jessica Palis, RN, and clinical coordinator at Northwestern Memorial, said: “The oncology unit can be very stressful for staff, families, and the patients. The dogs bring great energy and happiness when they come to visit. It really brightens everyone’s day.”

At Northwestern Memorial, if a patient’s immune system is too weakened for physical interaction, the dog is trained to stand in the doorway and wave to the patient. No matter what their condition, a cancer patient can always find a way to engage with animal energy to improve their current state and perhaps even their outcome.

Service Animals & Pets

Suleika Jaouad is a young woman diagnosed with cancer who writes about her experience in a column for the New York Times. Upon returning home from the hospital, she begged her parents and doctors for a dog but was told “no” — her immune system, after dealing with a transplant, was still too weak.

Then, a few months later, her doctors called:

“My doctors had decided to give me the green light on adopting a furry friend. In fact, they encouraged it. My immune system was stronger — not as strong as it could be, but relatively strong for a patient in the first six months after transplant. And caring for a pet, my doctors told me, might even be therapeutic. As a cancer patient, I’m always being prescribed medicine. But I never thought I’d get a prescription for a puppy.

The idea that Suleika was “prescribed” a puppy might seem rather funny to many, but maybe this way of thinking should start to be taken seriously. Consider that this type of prescription carries virtually no negative side effects if one is not allergic (besides chewed up slippers) and has been proven effective on both the physical and emotional level.

The good news here is that any type of contact with animals — whether it occurs in a hospital room or in one’s home — has been shown beneficial.

An Ancient Bond in the Modern World

Maybe it all makes sense that when patients are in the presence of animals they are happier and healthier.

Thousands of years ago, when the more docile wolves began joining human civilization, the ensuing genetic changes of the wolf led to what we now know as “the family dog.” Once joined, humans and wolves adapted to each other — and this adaptation benefited both species greatly throughout their evolutions.

However, dogs aren’t the only option for cancer patients – cats, fish, guinea pigs, birds, and gerbils are also commonly used to similar positive effects. In considering the findings of this recent study, and the many studies of the past, linking animals to increased happiness and positivity in humans, it’s important to not lose sight of the common bond that all animals share — and when it comes to the fight against cancer, regardless of the type, patients should have as many options at their disposal as possible. And here is but one more.

Dr. Milano is a sponsored contributor to Mesothelioma Help Now.