By Dr. Becker
Physical activity has been shown to benefit adults with cancer immensely, both during and after treatment. Therapy dogs are also known to benefit cancer patients, so it makes perfect sense that combiningthe two – activity and animals – may boost patients’ mind, body, and spirit.
This may be especially true among children with cancer, who are often treated as though they’re too frail to participate in “normal” childhood experiences, like playing sports. But such children may actually benefit from engaging in physical experiences, including adventures like dog sledding.
Dog Sledding Boosts Physical and Psychological Health Among Kids with Cancer
New research published in Ecancermedicalscience found dog sledding improved both physical and psychological health among children with cancer. The study involved 11 children and teenagers who took part in a six-week adapted physical activity program (APAP), which included five days of intense dog sledding.
The children experienced improvements in abdominal muscle endurance, sit-up scores, muscle tone, and baseline heart rate along with self-esteem, sport competence, and physical strength. The researchers concluded:
“The practice of physical activity is essential in the development of a child, and the diagnosis of cancer should not deprive the child of physical activity. APAP should, a priori, have a place in the care of children with cancer …
All participants successfully completed the program without harm. We observed statistically significant beneficial effects on both physical and psychological health between the initial and the final testing sessions of the program.”
Shattering False Beliefs
It’s remarkable what spending time with animals can do (and even more remarkable when that time is also spent engaged in physical activity in nature). One of the study’s authors, Dr. Nicolas André, a pediatric oncologist at the Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Marseille, France, even explained that the study helped him move past false beliefs. He told Science Daily:1
"What I learned from this study is that we doctors have the false belief that kids with cancer cannot practice sport because they are too tired or weak from their treatments … These perceptions are at least partly wrong … Adapted physical activities can be performed by most children with cancer even during their treatment, and can bring a lot to children."
While the children participated in a number of activities, the dog sledding was specifically chosen so the children could build a strong relationship with animals. In addition to the sledding, they also helped care for the dogs.
Therapy Dogs Also Help Cancer Patients Heal
While the children in the study benefitted from spending time with their sled dogs, other cancer patients benefit from spending time with certified therapy dogs. Researchers from Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York found that cancer patients had improved emotional well-being and quality of life when they spent time with a therapy dog during chemotherapy and radiation treatment.2,3
In addition to lowering anxiety and stress levels, patients reported the therapy dogs provided a distraction to the treatment and helped diminish feelings of pain. Many health care institutions are now adopting teams of therapy dogs to visit cancer patients.
This includes the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which has embraced canine therapy since 2007. Their team of 20 therapy dogs and their owners have visited hundreds of cancer patients, who report the following benefits:4
- Lessened anxiety and distress
- Reduced need for pain medication
- Emotional support
- Increased comfort communicating with health care team
- Increased motivation at working toward recovery
Cancer Treatment Centers of America, where certified therapy dogs visit patients at all of their hospitals, explained:5
“Animal assisted therapy (AAT), also known as pet therapy, is a form of therapy that uses dogs and other animals to help people cope with health problems, including cancer. Visiting with a certified therapy pet in the hospital can provide patients and their families with comfort, relief, and a distraction from pain, discomfort, and stress.
“AAT has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood and energy levels, and decrease perceived pain and anxiety. It can also provide a sense of companionship that can combat feelings of isolation. Dogs are most commonly therapy pets, although other domesticated pets, farm animals, and even dolphins can be used in some circumstances.”
Animal-Assisted Therapy Decreases Pain, Fear Among Pediatric Patients
Both adults and children stand to benefit from interacting with animals in the hospital setting. In a literature review published in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, researchers noted, “Pain, adjustment difficulties, mood changes, and symptom management can be improved in inpatient pediatric cancer patients receiving AFT [animal-facilitated therapy], thus improving overall quality of life.”6
Both physiological and psychological benefits were noted in hospitalized pediatric cancer patients, including:
Decreased pain Change in vital signs Distraction Decreased fear Increased socialization Increased pleasure Decreased emotional distress
Animal therapy can take many forms. It may involve patients caring for an animal, as is often the case in equine therapy, or it can involve animals brought into health care settings to interact with patients individually or in groups. It may even involve a novel activity, as was the case with the dog sledding in the featured study.
However, some of the greatest benefits of all may come from spending time with your own pet. Fortunately, an increasing number of hospitals are allowing pets to visit their sick owners. Rev. Susan Roy, director of Pastoral Care Services at the University of Maryland Medical Center, told Vetstreet:7
"Pets are as much a part of the family structure as any other member," Roy says. "We realized that if you're hospitalized, you would be much happier seeing your own pet rather than a therapy animal, so that's why we focused our program on the patient's own pet."
Kathie Land, whose daughter was hospitalized for several months, agreed. "Having therapy dogs come in is good, but being able to have your child's own puppy visit is just a whole lot better.”8