Therapy Dogs Help People with Cancer

Photo Credit: Kathie Meier

Animal-assisted visits in cancer treatment centers are gaining in popularity. Patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy can opt for some doggie face time during their treatments. But does this truly influence the patient’s well-being? Until recently, scientific documentation of the benefits of pet-facilitated therapy for cancer patients has been lacking. A study published in the January Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology provides just such evidence.

The study titled, “Beneficial effects of animal-assisted visits on quality of life during multimodal radiation-chemotherapy regimens” evaluated 37 people undergoing a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for treatment of head and neck cancer. Throughout their treatments, these patients received daily 15-20 minute animal-assisted visits. A questionnaire called the FACT-G (Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy- General) was administered three times during the seven-week course of treatment. The responses of the patients demonstrated a significant increase in their sense of social and emotional well-being despite declines in their physical and functional well-being.

Principal researcher, Dr. Steward Fleishman called this study, “the first such definitive study in cancer.” He goes on to say,

Having an animal-assisted visit significantly improved quality of life and humanized a high-tech treatment. Patients said they would have stopped their treatments before completion except for the presence of the certified Good Dog Foundation therapy dog and volunteer handler.

This fabulous study was funded by Zoetis Animal Health and The Good Dog Foundation. Dr. Michael McFarland, director of Companion Animal Veterinary Operations at Zoetis stated,

There is mounting evidence in human and veterinary medicine that the emotional bond between people and companion animals can have a positive impact on emotional and physical health. These new results help advance our understanding of the value of animal-assisted therapy in cancer treatment and point to the ways the oncology and animal health communities can work together in supporting cancer patients to achieve the best possible outcome.

Hats off to Zoetis Animal Health, Good Dog Foundation, and the researchers who performed this study. My hope is that these results will promote the interest and funding necessary to make animal-assisted therapy in medical settings an integral part of patient care.

What is your experience with animal-assisted therapy?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.



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14 Comments on “Therapy Dogs Help People with Cancer

  1. Thank you for your kind and informative response. It’s so nice to know there are still people who’ll go through a lot of work to help others in a needed time. Wonderful article! :)

  2. Hi Cara. Thanks for your comments and questions. Most hospitals work through local organizations that officially certify dogs (or other pets) to provide pet-assisted therapy. The animal must pass specific health and behavioral screenings and the volunteer handler must receive some specific training.

  3. I think dog’s can 100% improve a patients mental wellbeing. This should be done in every hospital. In general, dog’s make people smile. I sometimes bring my dog to stores with me and there’s always an older person who comes near me to pet her or just to tell me that she’s made them smile. Dog’s are beautiful animals with such loving souls.

    Do you know the rules and standards of dog’s being in hospitals? Is every hospital different? Do you know if all hospitals allow this?

  4. I have an 8 year old Golden Retriever that we adopted 3 years ago. I work at a Chemical Dependency Residential Rehab and go to work 2 days a week. Our Golden does not have his Canine Good Citizen Certificate. However, he is truly a therapy dog loved by our residence. He brings such joy and love to all those needing the hugs he gives, happy smile and loving heart. He has made many friends.

  5. As a respiratory therapist working a hospital, I sometimes see therapy dogs. I can tell you I love seeing them! When I encounter a dog in the hall, which is certainly not expected, it brings a smile to my face every time and lightens my mood. So it is very true that the patients are not he only ones who benefit.
    I have been interested in having a therapy dog for years but have not had the right dog. Myles, a border collie, has the perfect soft, loving, gentle way with people but is afraid of things that make beeping sounds, making him uncomfortable in a facility setting. (He may have been trained to an e-collar before I adopted him).
    But I adopted a 3 year old who is now in training and I think he will be good as a therapy dog. I am so inspired by people’s stories to pursue this. I will retire next year and hopefully be back in the hospital bringing smiles to people and touching patient’s hearts.

  6. After certification with Paws for Healing in Napa, CA, my Golden Retriever and I have been visiting a local hospital each week for nearly three years. Not only have we had deeply moving experiences with patients who opened up, appeared less fearful and began to smile again, but the effect on the staff is equally moving. More than once have I seen an exhausted nurse squat down to wrap her arms around my dog with the words, “boy, do I ever need to hold him today”. I can’t explain the magic of what happens but there is something going on that changes lives just by that warm, generous furry body being present.

  7. Casey was a Boxer/Pitbull that I adopted from the Humane Society. She was the sweetest dog and obviously came from a home that had kids, as she absolutely loved kids. She was also handichallenged as she was missing a front leg. She became a St. Johns Therapy dog and we spent many hours in retirement homes and going to schools to talk to the kids about dog safety and to show that Pitbulls are a loving and tolerant breed. The seniors enjoyed her visits as well, especially the amputees, many of whom were surprised that she hadn’t been euthanized when her leg needed to be amputated.
    I had fourteen wonderful years with her. Thanks for letting me share a Casey memory…:)

  8. All three of my dogs were certified as Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs. We went to Retirement Homes, Convalescent Centers and I started a Paws To Read Program at the local libraries where kids came and read to the dogs in 15 minute sessions.

    All three had an amazing impact on all the people we came in contact. The impact was seen by the parents of the kids who thanked us over and over again. Kids that were very shy became out going. It gave the retirees something to look forward to and a reason to be alive. The same with the patients in the convalescent centers. Some could not get out of bed. The smiles on their faces when we entered the room said it all.

  9. I read all of the comments with teary eyes. I, too, dabbled in some pet therapy work with the elderly. It was to educate my children, as well as help the elderly. With my three young children in tow (7, 9 and 12 years old), a lop ear rabbit and my faithful sheltland sheepdog, we would visit the nursing home closest to where we lived. Those sad and dull eyes of the residents would light up when they saw us enter. The children learned a valuable lesson about giving without expecting a reward (except for the glow in their hearts when we left). The residents would laugh with the children and throw a ball for my sweet Dixie to fetch for them. They laughed even harder when I asked Dixie to find her ball and she would try to grab the ones on the walkers nearby. My middle daughter was the rabbit raiser and had the sweetest rabbit that would happily sit in a lined wicker basket and be petted. His soft fur brought instant smiles to the resident who held the basket on their lap and touched him. I went into some of the rooms of the “less aware” patients and let Dixie nuzzle a hand or help the residents stroke her soft fur. She would stare straight into their eyes with a look of heavenly pleasure. One of my happiest memories was of a resident that had suffered some sort of stroke and sat hunched with her arms stiff and twisted. I sat Dixie in her lap and helped her stoke that wonderfully soft fur. Soon, her hand unclenched and her fingers straightened out so that her whole palm was in contact with Dixie’s coat. Her expression softened and she looked so relaxed that I had a hard time figuring out when to stop. I think animals can make a difference in many aspects of human suffering and struggles. They make excellent listeners to the little children that are having a hard time learning to read too! Thank you for your wonderful blog!

  10. I’ve taken my Gordon Setter to a local nursing home to visit dog owners. The facility allows patients’ pets to visit. I can’t tell you how much fun Lillie had hopping on the bed of a former Gordon Setter breeder to cuddle with her for a while, or the shock of an elderly man using his walker in the hallway who stopped and said “is that a Gordon Setter I see?”! What a thrill for all of us.

    As the associate editor of our regional breed club, I wonder if it’s possible to get permission to reprint your blog entry in our newsletter? We have several members who do therapy work with their Gordons and this might encourage others to look into it.

    Thank you!!

  11. I, too, have many years of experience taking my therapy dog, Jasper, to the local cancer treatment center. The mood in the chemo infusion room instantly shifts as soon as we walk in. Patients begin talking with each other about their own dogs; friendly disputes break out about who will get to spend time with Jasper first. It’s a long and lonely process, this sitting about for two hours or more while chemicals are pumped into the body. And even those patients who are accompanied to their appointments by loved ones point out that however cheerful the environment or the nurses, it’s pretty hard to forget why you’re there. Jasper introduces a whole new level of energy and hope and love to the room (for the patients, and for the nurses as well), they tell me. He doesn’t merely sit there and wait to be petted (although that’s sometimes enough for some patients), he looks straight into their eyes, and things get exchanged between them that I can’t begin to understand. Sometimes, when an expression of glumness seems to pass over the face of a patient he’s with, Jasper will poke that person gently with a paw, offer up a goofy expression, and the person winds up giggling. Although I have been doing this for 7 years with him, I cannot fully explain exactly what happens between my dog and some of the patients, but I know it’s at least partly magic at least some of the time. I am thrilled there is now scientific evidence of some of the impacts on patients’ health, and I also believe there are probably some things about all this that we will never completely understand. I’m fine with that.

  12. I had a live-in therapist, my Labrador Addie. Walking her through the woods each day was what helped me most, along with the friend who cooked my supper so that I could take the time to walk my dog. Chemo was terrible but I was too busy teaching full-time and dog-walking to notice it that much. :-) I strongly advise anyone who has treatment NOT to drop outside activities, such as work. Who needs nothing in their lives except blood counts?

  13. Hi Nancy, thanks so much for writing and posting this article on therapy dogs. I had a personal experience with a therapy dog visit 18 months ago – as I was on my 3rd day of hospital recovery from heart bypass surgery.
    The visit was a surprise gift from my daughter Leigh, who shares the family love of dogs.
    The therapy dog seemed to know instinctively exactly how to gently greet me and be with me in my state of discomfort and anxiety – the visit helped me bring up the stuffed down emotions that emergency heart surgery engendered. I found myself crying as I was so touched by the genuine canine caring concern and rapt attention on me. What an amazing attribute these dogs have and special appreciation to their owners-trainers who commit their time visiting strangers in the hospital.

  14. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. Charlotte and I spend several hours every Thursday afternoon visiting in the radiation therapy waiting room at our nearby cancer center. It has been heartwarming to see her interaction with patients. The patients have smiles on their faces as they round the corner and see her in the waiting room, and most are talking to her before they even enter the room. The comments of two patients were particularly touching – months apart they told me that they walked into the room, made eye contact with her and just knew everything was going to be okay. More recently a patient was hugging her and they were looking at each other face to face – she remarked that Charlotte looked “right into her soul”. When I first read this article I was thrilled to see that at least one study had been done and validated the deep bond and emotional benefit that these wonderful therapy companions can provide to patients at a most difficult time in their lives.