For many individuals, pets are like family and most pet owners note that they are nearly always comforted by the presence of their pets. Some say petting their dog, cat, horse, or any other animal lowers their blood pressure and gives them an overall feeling of calm, even after a long and stressful day.
For cancer patients, especially those with an aggressive disease like mesothelioma, stress is ever present. Perhaps that’s why pet therapy has proven to be so helpful for many patients who are simply overwhelmed with the hard facts of dealing with their disease.
Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Using animals – mostly dogs – to soothe the worries of cancer patients isn’t anything new. Pet therapy – or animal-assisted therapy – has been an “official” treatment for terminally ill patients for the last three decades or so. Numerous studies have been done over the years touting the benefits of this kind of therapy, even for those who didn’t profess to be dog lovers before their malignant mesothelioma was diagnosed.
In 1984, a 10-week study was conducted using terminal cancer patients (Muschel et al) who were provided with weekly 90-minute visits with friendly therapy dogs. A questionnaire and simple observations were used to measure the results, the conclusion being that the visits overwhelmingly decreased anxiety and despair among the patients.
There is also evidence which demonstrates that participation in pet therapy can decrease pain in patients with mesothelioma cancer and other malignancies. This is because petting an animal is shown to increase the production of endorphins, chemicals that suppress the pain response.
Furthermore, a 1991 study by Chinner and Dalziel which involved the introduction of a small poodle to a resident hospice for terminal patients concluded that “the poodle facilitated interactions between patients and staff; eased patient visitor relations; and increased staff and patient morale on a situational basis.”
Patients who have been involved in pet therapy report that not only does their stress level decrease but they also feel less “alone” during their ordeal. This is especially true for those who do not have supportive family nearby. While having a pet of their own may not be ideal for someone who is terminally ill, a few visits a week with a friendly animal has been shown to alleviate some of the loneliness cancer patients feel when they have no one on which to depend for support.
Where to Find a Pet Therapy Program
These days, most of the top cancer hospitals in the U.S. have animal-assisted therapy programs available within their facilities. These programs are generally directed by a healthcare or human services professional with specific expertise in the field of pet therapy, such as a recreational therapist. They may be assisted by lay volunteers who own the animals that take part in the program.
Many pet therapy sessions are conducted in groups where an animal or animals are encouraged to interact with the patients and vice versa. However, for those who are confined to a bed and cannot participate in a group outpatient-type setting, small animals can be brought to the patient’s bed if the patient is willing.
Remember, not every animal is suitable for pet therapy interaction. Some are too aggressive or active; others simply have the wrong disposition for this kind of work. That’s why it is best to find a certified animal-assisted therapy program at the hospital or mesothelioma clinic where the patient is receiving mesothelioma treatment or elsewhere in the local community.
If your local hospital does not have a program and your doctor cannot recommend one in the area, contact Therapy Dogs International (www.tdi-dog.org) or The Delta Society (www.deltasociety.org), both of which can help patients and their families locate group and private pet therapy programs throughout the United States.
Duke University Health System: Oncology Recreational Therapy
Healthline: Pet Therapy