Benefits of Support Animals for Cancer Patients

A service animal gets a hug from a mesothelioma patient.

Pet owners can attest to the joys of having an animal in their lives. For cancer patients, these advantages may be significant.

Cancer patients may find comfort and companionship in animal interaction. These are common benefits of having a pet. Interacting with specially trained support and therapy animals may have even more advantages. In some instances, animals may even help improve quality of life. Mesothelioma patients may wish to talk with their care team about support or therapy animals.

How Can Support Animals Help Cancer Patients?

There are different types of support, service and companion animals. These include traditional pets, therapy animals, support animals and service animals.

Several studies have measured the positive effects of therapy animals on patients with a variety of conditions. Recorded advantages are both psychological and physiological. Measurable benefits include reduced blood pressure, heart rate, stress levels and even pain.

In one study, researchers tested the effect of animal-assisted visits (AAVs) for 42 patients with head and neck cancer. The study authors used the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-General Scale (FACT-G) to observe the impacts on the patients. The FACT-G is a questionnaire that measures four aspects of well-being in cancer patients:

  • Functional Well-Being (FWB)
  • Physical Well-Being (PWB)
  • Emotional Well-Being (EWB)
  • Social Well-Being (SWB)

The patients were evaluated over 7 weeks. The researchers recorded declines in FWB and PWB. This was expected because of the patients’ prognoses. However, even with these declines, most patients had significant increases in EWB and SWB.

Another study evaluated time spent with therapy dogs compared with time spent in waiting rooms. This study took place at a pain management clinic over two months. It evaluated 295 therapy dog visits and 96 waiting room surveys. The group who received therapy dog visits reported improvements in mood, pain and anxiety levels.

Benefits of Animals for Cancer Patients

  • Alleviate boredom and feelings of isolation
  • Boost mood and emotional well-being
  • Create emotional connections and foster socialization
  • Provide a source of calm
  • Reduce anxiety and pain levels

For mesothelioma patients, support animals could be used as a form of supplemental or alternative treatment. Pain management and mental health are important parts of a patient’s treatment plan. Animal interaction could even be useful during palliative care stages.

Types of Animals That May Help Cancer Patients

Several types of animals can help patients.

  • Cancer-sniffing dogs: Research is underway to determine if dogs can be reliably trained to detect cancer. Some small-scale studies have been conducted with promising results. One such study measured three dogs’ abilities to detect lung cancer cells. Researchers presented healthy blood and blood from malignant lung cancer patients to each dog. The dogs correctly identified the cancer samples with a sensitivity of 96.7%.
  • Emotional support animals (ESAs): Mental health professionals may prescribe ESAs to help individuals with specific mental health concerns. These animals provide comfort through their bond with their owner. Treatment centers or non-pet-friendly public settings don’t typically allow ESAs. However, if properly prescribed, they are usually allowed in housing regardless of pet policies.
  • Pets: Pets include dogs, cats, ferrets, horses, birds and any other animals people might keep as companions. They can provide comfort, entertainment and companionship. In many cases, patients have a long-standing positive relationship with their pets. However, many healthcare spaces will not allow pets. So, they cannot provide comfort during appointments and outings. Additionally, many housing facilities have pet restrictions.
  • Service animals: Service animals are highly trained to do specific tasks for people with disabilities. This includes guide dogs, medical alert animals and animals trained to assist with physical tasks. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, service dogs can go most places with their owner. This includes places where animals aren’t usually permitted.
  • Therapy animals: Therapy animals are trained to provide emotional comfort and affection. They may be present in hospitals, disaster areas, nursing homes and more. Animals, often dogs, come into a group setting where patients can pet, play with and interact with them. They are often part of broader animal-assisted therapy programs.

Each type of support animal has different considerations. Mesothelioma patients should discuss their specific needs and treatment goals with their care team when considering an animal companion.

How Do You Get a Support Animal?

A medical provider must prescribe an ESA. This includes getting an ESA Letter, an official document signed by a licensed mental health professional. The letter confirms someone has a legitimate need for a support animal. Federal law will recognize only an official ESA Letter. This document cannot be obtained via internet services.

The letter is printed on the provider’s letterhead and includes their licensing information. It will also be signed and dated, and confirm your animal provides support for an illness or disability.

While dogs and cats are the most common ESAs, horses, rabbits and even pigs can offer support to their humans.

Support animals have more privileges and access than pets, but have more restrictions than service animals. Mesothelioma patients wishing to bring their ESA to appointments should contact their healthcare facilities. This will help confirm ESAs are allowed on premises ahead of time.

Who Is Best Suited to Animal Support?

For some mesothelioma patients, it may be worthwhile to explore the benefits of an ESA. In some cases, patients can even have an existing pet registered as an ESA. ESAs aren’t for everyone, though. Any animal companion requires daily care, including food, exercise and veterinary visits.

It is also important to consider the logistics of having an animal around during cancer treatment. For example, the American Cancer Society recommends keeping animals away from trash and body waste for 48 – 72 hours after chemotherapy.

If having a pet or support animal of your own isn’t an option, therapy animal programs can provide similar benefits. These animals are often available in cancer care centers, outpatient facilities and nursing homes.

Mesothelioma patients interested in adding a support animal to their life should speak to their care team. This can help patients determine their best options and get more information.