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The Positive Power of Pets

Pets provide comfort, relieve stress from cancer.

BY Charlotte Huff
PUBLISHED December 21, 2011

Karen Peyser freely admits that she felt angry and isolated in the initial months following her 2007 diagnosis of non-small cell lung cancer. She not only lost her right lung but also endured 16 weeks of highly toxic platinum-based chemotherapy.

She was scared and short-tempered, sometimes driving away friends and her sister as they tried their best to support her. At age 52, Peyser had been accustomed to flying through life solo. “I had to accept my sister’s help, which was very, very difficult for me. And I made it very hard for her.”

But Peyser allowed River, her 4-year-old labradoodle, to snuggle close. They would often lie, nose to nose on the sofa of her Brooklyn apartment as she recovered from each chemotherapy treatment. If she drifted off in exhaustion at night, River would stay right by her side. 

“Humans can only comfort you to a certain extent,” she says. “But when your pet licks your face and snuggles up against you, you accept it with all of your heart.”

The American Humane Association, working with Pfizer Animal Health, is designing a multicenter study to assess the health impact on children with cancer and their families when they receive regular visits by dogs during their treatment, also referred to as animal-assisted therapy. The details are still being worked out, but about 150 children, including half in a control group, will be enrolled, according to Fluke.

Another study, involving adult cancer patients at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center, is already under way. Researchers are looking at whether regular visits by dogs through the course of intensive cancer treatment—chemotherapy and radiation—makes any difference.

“We have had people who have said, ‘I would have stopped treatment if I didn’t know the dog was coming,’” says Stewart Fleishman, MD, the study’s lead investigator and founding director of cancer supportive services at Continuum Cancer Centers of New York.

Other studies have examined the healing role of pet ownership more broadly. Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center of the Human Animal Bond at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., dates one of the first pivotal journal articles to 1980.

That analysis found that pet owners were more likely to survive at least a year after hospitalization for a heart attack or chest pain compared with non-pet owners. Among pet owners, 94 percent survived compared with 72 percent of those who didn’t own a pet. “It was the first time there was a formal recognition in a peer-reviewed medical journal that animal ownership was a variable worthy of significant consideration,” Beck says.

Other studies have also identified stress reduction effects that could be applicable to cancer patients. One 2001 study of patients taking a blood pressure drug found that those who also adopted a cat or a dog experienced less of a blood pressure response to heightened mental stress. Another study, published in 2009 in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, found that the relative risk of dying from a heart attack over a 20-year period was 37 percent lower for people who had owned a cat than those who did not own a cat.

One theory is that cat ownership reduces stress and thus cardiovascular disease, says Adnan Qureshi, MD, the 2009 study’s lead author and professor of neurology, neurosurgery and radiology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. But there are other possibilities, driven in part by the lack of a similar effect among dog owners.

Perhaps cat owners possess a different personality that provides some protective heart benefit in and of itself, he says. Or it may be that cat owners are a sedentary lot to begin with and, thus, may have more heart risk factors that could be offset by the soothing side effects of cat ownership, Qureshi says, stressing that it’s unclear what’s happening.

It’s difficult to unravel precisely how animals ease some symptoms, Beck says. Take some of the evidence involving pain management, for example. Data presented at a 2009 conference showed that adults who use pet therapy during recovery from joint-replacement surgery require 50 percent less pain medication.

Pets can ground people in the moment, distracting them from negative thoughts or feelings, Beck says. “Part of pain is your perception of pain. If you are bored out of your skull, worrying about the cancer, you’re going to feel every pain there is.”

Whatever the underlying causes, some cancer survivors describe the relationship they have with their pets as a healing therapy that they don’t want to live without. Nancy Parrish refused to leave her two young cats in a kennel when she traveled with her husband from their western North Carolina home to undergo bladder surgery in 2008. So they brought Caesar and Cleopatra along in their recreational vehicle on the way to New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Since Caesar prefers to sleep on Parrish at night, part of her presurgical preparation included the purchase of a bed tray. After the surgery, once she had returned to recuperate in the recreational vehicle, Caesar curled on top of the towel-covered tray that covered Parrish’s stomach and purred them both to sleep. 

“He wanted to get as close to me as he could,” says the retired middle school geography teacher, who is now 63.

Parrish, who had her bladder removed to treat the stage 1, aggressive malignancy, says her two kitties continue to provide support when she gets sad or stressed. “They always cheer me up.”

At the very least, animals provide connections to the broader world that help cancer patients navigate the transition to survivorship. Peyser recalls that on days when she rallied a bit, River would nudge her to get out, dropping a ball at her feet.

Increasingly, she ventured out more and more, buoyed by the positive feedback of family and neighbors. “The more I got out, the better I felt—a body in motion,” she says.

With time, Peyser learned to accept help from loved ones and describes today’s bond with her sister as stronger than ever. But she also credits her four-legged friend. “I would not have made it through this without River—that’s all I can say. In a lot of ways, I pushed everybody else away.”

Pet lovers don’t need to be convinced about the emotional salve and support that animals can provide at any stage of life’s journey. But researchers are trying to get a better handle on the potential healing role of animals when illness flares. 

To date, relatively little research has been published involving people with cancer and the healing power of animals. Studies that have been completed point to the use of therapy animals for those going through treatment. Other studies involving other diagnoses indicate a variety of potential health payoffs—including reduced pain and anxiety and boosted activity—that could potentially help people with cancer as they move through treatment and beyond with an animal by their side.

Even so, more well-designed studies need to be conducted to prove what has long been observed, says John Fluke, PhD, vice president of the Child Protection Research Center at the American Humane Association.

“As much as we have a strong sense that these bonds are important, we don’t really have the level of scientific evidence that we need to be able to suggest that this does in fact work,” he says.

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