Animal-assisted therapy brings more than joy to cancer patients

December 09, 2015 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

There’s a new kind of therapy that’s gaining momentum in hospitals and other health care settings across the country. There are lots of health benefits and no side effects. It’s called animal-assisted therapy (AAT), and it uses dogs and other animals to help people cope with health problems.

Being in a hospital can be stressful, uncomfortable and scary. A visit from a certified therapy dog is often a welcomed break for patients, caregivers and staff. For cancer patients in particular, AAT can ease the burden of going through difficult treatments like chemotherapy. It can also:

  • Improve mood and energy levels
  • Provide a distraction from pain and discomfort
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Provide a sense of companionship
  • Promote relaxation
  • Enhance well-being

“When a patient in the cancer center has a visit with a pet therapy dog, they aren’t a patient anymore. They become transformed. It really brings a lot of joy,” says Maggie Hallock, who works in the oncology business office at the Nancy W. Knowles Cancer Center in Elmhurst Hospital.

Hallock helped to bring the AAT program to the hospital’s oncology unit in 2013. She says the program is a value-add for patients. “We are looking for the whole mind-body experience for them,” she says.

Once or twice a week, certified pet therapy dogs, like Sage, a Siberian Husky, and her handler Jennifer Soule, visit the center. They walk through the lobby to the infusion center, stopping to greet those who would like a visit. The visits vary in length, but can last anywhere from five to 30 minutes.

The reaction has been a positive one. “When they bring the dogs to the lobby, faces light up,” says Hallock. “Patients often look forward to seeing ‘their dog’ and the dogs get to know the patients too.”

The dogs know they are there to do an important job — and even have their own business cards to prove it. On Sage’s card, we learn that she was rescued in 2009, likes “long walks in the woods and running in the snow,” and is a great companion.

Before visiting the cancer center, the dogs must be up to date on all of their immunizations and have been bathed within 24 hours prior to their visit. Patients too must meet certain health criteria to be eligible for AAT.

The hospital currently has 18 certified pet therapy dogs and a range of breeds, says Amy DeCillo, volunteer coordinator who leads the AAT program at Elmhurst Hospital. Each dog must pass a rigorous testing, evaluation and training program, including temperament testing for a hospital setting. This ensures the dogs are at ease around patients, wheelchairs, walkers and IV poles, for instance.

AAT isn’t for everyone. Some patients are afraid of dogs, allergic, or simply don’t want to be bothered, and this is always honored, says DeCillo.

For those interested though, AAT will continue to lift spirits and brighten days. “We had a patient who was stressed for a number of reasons. During a pet therapy session, you could see the patient visibly relax and smile. Everything was as it should be,” says Hallock.

As more evidence about the health benefits of AAT emerges, more hospitals will likely bring it on — especially if patient outcomes and length of stay improve. For now, it looks like it’s worth it for patients and families just to feel calmer and happier.

Learn more about the animal-assisted therapy program at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Have you ever had a visit from a pet therapy dog? We’d love to hear about it!

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