“Finn is a sweetie pie…the best thing since sliced cheese.” says Catherine as she gets closer for some snuggles before her radiation treatment. Pet therapy has been a surprising source of support for Catherine and her caregiver, Woody. Catherine describes Finn as comforting and distracting. “He gives me something else to think about—I also see how great he is with the kids. It’s nice to watch.” Pet therapy provides Catherine and other patients and caregivers with unexpected fun when going through a time of uncertainty, suffering and anxiety. Catherine feels Finn really helps her before she has her treatments and “makes her laugh.” He restores a sense of normalcy.
Catherine had a dog herself, Bert, a rescued Greyhound. Sadly, not long after Catherine was diagnosed, Bert was also diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma). Bert also went through treatment (chemotherapy) but sadly, did not survive. “I think about Bert having cancer a lot in terms of my own cancer; is that weird? I hope he didn’t get cancer because I got cancer.”
Many cancer patients have also experienced a cancer diagnosis and treatment in a beloved companion animal. As veterinary oncology treatments have improved and grown, many more pet owners are accessing chemotherapy and radiation therapy for their pets. There are also many clinical trials looking at treatment of cancer medications in dogs and how these might translate to cancer in humans.
Animal assisted therapy and interactions can help patients and their caregivers relax. Studies have shown that the simple act of petting a dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate. Interaction with a therapy animal can also cause a release of oxytocin, also known as the love hormone. Between the distraction, support, entertainment and tactile benefits, pet therapy is a low cost intervention for cancer treatment sites that may improve patient satisfaction and may possible influence patient outcomes. Further research in the area is needed; but for now, Finn will just keep on spreading love the only way he knows how—by being himself.
For more information or questions about animal assisted therapy and cancer patients, contact Christina Bach, [email protected]
Healing Paws is a joint project between OncoLink and the Department of Radiation Oncology, Penn Medicine. Finn, the therapy dog, is a registered therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International (TDI®).
Photos by William Levin, MD, Department of Radiation Oncology, Penn Medicine
Consents for disclosure of personal information/photography on file.