Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Sit, stay and heal: Therapy dogs help soothe cancer patients

animal therapy

A wag of the tail. A gentle lick to the face. The unconditional love in a furry snuggle.  Dogs are called man’s best friend for good reason—just being around the amiable creatures can make a bad day instantly brighter. A growing body of research suggests that’s especially true for those with diseases like cancer.

Studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy can decrease anxiety and pain, lower blood pressure and help alleviate depression, while offering welcome companionship and a positive distraction from treatment schedules and worries.

Cynthia Ingram, our Chicago-area hospital’s Animal Therapy Coordinator, witnesses the positive effects while making patient rounds with Tori, her irresistibly friendly therapy dog partner. “When she walks in, you can just see people relax and become more at ease,” says Ingram, a Registered Nurse and board-certified Holistic Nurse.

In a recent study in the Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology, researchers followed 37 patients who were visited daily by therapy dogs while receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments for esophageal or head and neck cancer. After the 15- to 20-minute visits, the researchers noted positive increases in the patients’ emotional well-being and quality of life, even while experiencing physical and functional declines.

Therapy pets can be especially beneficial to cancer patients by:

  • Easing their anxiety and elevating their mood
  • Offering company and comfort, thereby lessening feelings of isolation or loneliness
  • Providing a distraction from pain, stress or boredom
  • Relaxing them, especially since petting or snuggling with a soft, friendly animal can release endorphins that have a calming effect
  • Motivating them to get better
  • Increasing socialization and encouraging communication

Ingram and her 7-year-old Australian labradoodle have seen the impact firsthand. They have trained, worked and lived together since 2008, when a patient donated Tori to our Chicago-area hospital. In that time, Ingram says, “Tori has brought smiles and eased anxiety for countless patients, caregivers, family members and stakeholders as they faced challenging times.”

In fact, pets of all stripes—including cats, horses, rabbits, even porpoises—have been used as therapy animals to elevate the mood and lower patients’ stress level. Dogs, though, remain the most common therapy pet, especially in a hospital setting.

 “As a true dog lover, especially of golden retrievers, I can tell you these wonderful animals can provide great support for patients, in general, and cancer patients, in particular,” says Dr. Maurie Markman, President of Medicine and Science at our hospitals.

Learn about the nine things you should consider before starting animal therapy.