Pet Therapy Touches Lives Beyond Patients With Cancer, Including Caregivers and Providers


The impact of animal-assisted therapy is felt by more than just patients with cancer, explained Cynthia Ingram, BS, RN, HN-BC, COHN-S. Service animals like her dog, Tori, can also have a positive impact on the well-being of caregivers and health care providers.

Cynthia Ingram,BS, RN, HN-BC, COHN-S

Cynthia Ingram,BS, RN, HN-BC, COHN-S

Encouraged by her sister’s cancer diagnosis, Cynthia Ingram, BS, RN, HN-BC, COHN-S, animal therapy coordinator, Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) Chicago, pursued her dream to start an animal-assisted therapy program in her institution.

“My sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” she shared. “And at that time, I was in a director position. And I was feeling like I needed to be doing something else. And so, she asked me what my dreams were. And my actual dream was to start an animal-assisted therapy program, I just wasn't sure what that would look like. But that was my dream."

Now, nearly 14 years later, Ingram and her therapy dog, Tori, are a vital part of the behavioral health team at CTCA Chicago, providing daily visits to patients with cancer to offer a comforting distraction to the pain, discomfort, or distress from treatments.

Animal-Assisted Therapy Program

After being encouraged by her sister, Ingram spent time volunteering with a dog trainer and gaining experience in the field of animal-assisted therapy. She then collaborated with the director of behavioral health at CTCA in Chicago to establish the program she dreamt of. The program officially began in November of 2008.

The program has 1 dedicated service dog, Tori, an Australian Shepherd. Although a variety of animals can be included in animal-assisted therapy, Ingram’s team “chose to stay with just 1 dedicated therapy dog, because we have patients who are immunosuppressed. And we wanted to make sure that we addressed the safety of our patients.”

For a dog to qualify, they must pass a Canine Good Citizen course. Puppies, like Tori when Ingram started training her, can take about a year to be ready to start working. Tori passed puppy class, obedience class, and advanced obedience class before starting the Canine Good Citizen course. In addition, the pet partners or handler also must complete a written test and demonstrate that the dog will respond appropriately in the hospital environment. Dogs cannot begin working until they are least 1 year old.

Positive Effects in Patients with Cancer, Families

Ingram explained that animal-assisted therapy has been shown to reduce stress and improve energy levels, as well as decrease perceived pain and anxiety. It can also help to combat the feeling of isolation that can accompany numerous procedures or hospitalizations and offer a sense of familiarity and companionship. This is especially potent for patients who travel for treatments and have been separated from their own pets.

Most importantly, people love it.

“I have so many really fun memories,” she shared. “I mean, 1 thing that I really enjoy is the impact [Tori] has walking down the hall, no matter what's going on, whether it's a patient or a family member, people just stop and engage with her. It’s just beautiful to see that.”

The average day for the duo involves “rounds” to drop in on patients for whom it has been deemed appropriate to receive animal-assisted therapy. Ingram described the effect of Tori as “magic.” All that is needed is for the dog to rest her head on the patient’s bed to make an impact.

“It's really lovely to watch the family witness that because it makes the family feel better, too,” Ingram said.

She recounted 1 instance of a patient whose son had special needs and could not be left at home. He was afraid to be around people, but when he found out about Tori, he wanted to meet her. Soon, he had regular appointments to meet with Tori whenever he came to the hospital. When Tori’s birthday party rolled around, he decided he wanted to attend even though there would be other people there. “He actually came down to the party and actually started talking to other people and throwing the ball for her,” noted Ingram. “He was able to really embrace a party for the first time. And that was a really beautiful thing for his mother.”

Animal-Assisted Therapy’s Impact on Health Care Providers

Tori doesn’t just brighten the day of patients and caregivers. She also has an impact on the health care providers working in the cancer space.

“The people who work here really love Tori,” Ingram shared. “And I think she has provided a real sense of support for them sometimes, [as] working at [the] hospital can be challenging. And sometimes they have some difficulties in their day, and they'll come and see Tori. And they'll just sit down with her, and they might cry with her or just hug her or pet her. Within 5 minutes, Tori comforts them and they're able to return to work and it kind of resolves the issue.”

Starting an Animal-Assisted Therapy Program

Ingram’s advice to those interested in creating a similar program in their own institution is to figure out what type of program they want to have. “Our program is pretty unique,” she said. “We have a facility dog that only works with the patients in this facility. A lot of places have volunteer pet partners, so the pet partner would come in, but they could go to a variety of different places, you know, they might be at an elder care facility 1 day and a hospital the next day. All those volunteers have to be managed to make sure that the pet partner teams have their correct registration through the agency, and [that] they're following policies and procedures, and they have the orientation from the hospital. That's a [very] different way of doing it.”

As a next step, she advised: “I would decide what type of program you wanted to institute, and then talk to somebody within that company to see how you can make that happen.”

She concluded by sharing that “this has really been a wonderful adventure, full of love and joy for me. When we walk in a room, people light up, families light up. And patients and families share secrets with Tori. [They] talk about things that they normally wouldn't have. She allows that when she walks in the room. It gives them a sense of comfort. It’s been a true joy for me to be on the other end of the leash with her.”

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