April 27, 2018

The Impact of Animal-Facilitated Therapy on Cancer Patients, Facility Staff

A recent study documented the effects of hospital patient and staff interactions with dogs and handlers in the Caring Canines program.
By Natalie Stilwell, DVM, MS, PhD
Animal-facilitated therapy (AFT) is an increasingly popular component of managing many human medical and behavioral disorders. In a recent article published in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, researchers examined the effect of a hospital’s “Caring Canines” program on patients and staff in a surgical oncology recovery unit.
 

Study Design

Patients recovering from abdominal or limb surgery were assigned to AFT or control groups. Participants were required to be at least 21 years of age and speak English, and patients with allergies or those who were averse to interacting with dogs could decline participation. 

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Caring Canines dogs, all reported to be selected and extensively trained for therapy work, visited the surgical unit 4 days a week during the study period. Patients in the AFT group received a 10- to 15-minute visit each day with a Caring Canines dog and its volunteer handler. Hospital staff enrolled in the study could interact directly with the dogs and handlers or indirectly by observing their visits with patients.

Patients completed questionnaires evaluating symptoms, mobility, depression, anxiety, and sense of well-being the day after surgery and at or near discharge. Staff completed a survey assessing compassion fatigue, burnout, and job satisfaction levels at the beginning of the Caring Canines program and 6 weeks after its implementation. Patients and staff were also asked open-ended, qualitative questions about their experiences with the program.
 

Results

Fifty AFT and 50 control patients were enrolled in the study. Most patients in the AFT group received either 3 or 4 Caring Canine visits during hospitalization.

Quantitative analysis of patient questionnaire scores showed similar depression, happiness, hopefulness, fatigue, and pain levels for patients, regardless of study group. Energy levels of participants in both groups significantly improved from baseline to follow-up, and anxiety levels improved significantly in the control group only.

Job satisfaction and burnout levels reported by the 41 participating staff members were statistically similar before implementation of the AFT program and at the 6-week follow-up. Average scores did not indicate a level of concern for burnout or compassion fatigue.

Despite the apparent lack of benefit on quantitative analysis, patients and staff answered open-ended questions with overwhelmingly positive views of AFT. Patient responses indicated that Caring Canine visits were “uplifting” and provided a “nice break in [the] day” and “a connection to home.” Many patients also enjoyed interacting with the volunteer handlers and shared pictures with friends and family who were unable to visit in person.

Similarly, staff remarked that AFT “put a smile on everyone’s face” and “[made] a stressful day better.” One staff member remarked, “The program gives me something to look forward to.” None of the patients or staff reported negative experiences from their Caring Canines interactions.
 

Conclusions

This study was the first to examine the concurrent effect of AFT on cancer surgery patients and hospital staff. Although the authors noted challenges associated with quantitative assessment of psychological variables, the participants described largely positive effects of the Caring Canines program.

 
Dr. Stilwell received her DVM from Auburn University, followed by an MS in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences and a PhD in Veterinary Medical Sciences from the University of Florida. She provides freelance medical writing and aquatic veterinary consulting services through her business, Seastar Communications and Consulting.

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