Man’s best friend may eventually be healthcare’s best friend, according to recent research that examined the effects of animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) on hospital units treating pediatric patients with cancer.
In the United States, the population of childhood cancer survivors is expected to increase to about 500,000 by the year 2020, explained the researchers, who are from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. So, it is crucial that interventions be established to address the psychosocial and physical long-term effects, including low self-esteem, anxiety, decreased functional independence, poor sleep habits, and more.
“Pet therapy offers a comprehensive, holistic approach for enhancing the medical and psychological health of childhood cancer patients and survivors,” the authors wrote. “Animal-assisted interventions including therapies, education, and activities meet the National Institutes of Health’s definition of mind-body interventions of complementary and alternative techniques.”
The researchers conducted a systematic review that included 5 studies of AAI in the pediatric oncology setting. The majority of studies included childhood patients, and some also included their family members, oncology nurses, and/or hospital staff members.
AAI was found to improve both short- and long-term psychosocial outcomes in patients. Not only did interacting with therapy dogs boost the children’s mood, but one study also observed that it led to the patients having a more favorable perception of their environment. Another study found that after the AAIs, patients had more hope and focus on the future, particularly when it came to interacting with the pets more often.
The interventions were also found to improve short- and long-term physical outcomes for patients as well. According to one study, AAIs improved functional autonomy, nutrition, physical activity, and involvement in leisure activities. Long-term improvements included happier mood, higher cortisol levels, improved sleep quality, nourishment, and physical engagement.
“The unique attributes animals possess and the strong affinity between humans and animals are thought to facilitate therapy and lead to positive changes in patients’ emotional, behavioral, and physical and mental health status,” the authors wrote.
The patients were not the only people who benefitted from the AAIs, according to the study. Parents/guardians and hospital staff also reported positive psychosocial changes after the animal interventions. Notably, better professional relationships were reported between health professionals and parents/guardians after the AAIs.
While nearly all (94%) of parents recognized the potential benefit of AAI according to one study, they did also request additional safety. The authors noted the concern for zoonotic diseases, though one study found that the majority of hospitals that offered AAI did not see an increase in infection rates.
Also, another study found that there was a lack of adequate knowledge on the implementation and objectives of the animal interactions.
“Despite the long history of human-animal interactions, this field of study is still in its infancy with regard to demonstrating efficacy and validity,” the authors wrote. “The AAIs lacked standardization, with widely varying components, intensity, and duration. Evidence-based protocols and implementation guidelines should be established as early as possible to guide future interventions.”
Crotoc C, Ruopeng A, Klonoff-Cohen H. Pediatric Oncology and Animal-Assisted Interventions. Holistic Nursing Practice. 2019. 33(2): 101-110. (10p)