Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Pets Help Cancer Patients Get Better

Monday, 16 Dec 2013 11:09 AM

By Ronni Gordon

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My children gave me a most appropriate birthday gift this year: a wooden plaque featuring the face of a very cute dog along the words, “When all else fails, hug the dog.”
 
I know this to be good advice because I have a chocolate-colored Labrador retriever named Maddie. Almost every day, I get down on the floor to hug Maddie. I hug her on the couch, where she has a special reserved spot, and I hug her when she gets up on the bed with me to watch the evening news. The feeling of her velvety coat and the sound of her heartbeat calms me.
 
Dog owners are lucky to have their own in-house pet therapy. I imagine cat lovers get a boost from their feline companions as well, but I can’t imagine it’s the same because a cat is as likely to wander off as to stay put.
 
When Maddie senses that something is wrong, she comes and sits right beside me. I have taken many falls since being treated for cancer — the result of having weaker legs, less than ideal balance, and plain klutziness. When I fall, Maddie sits next to me until I either get up or someone comes to help. She is completely nonjudgmental, unlike people who (rightfully) question why I was jogging on a path strewn with stones and roots.
 
Therapy dogs are increasingly used in hospitals and other settings where patients receive chemotherapy. Research supports the therapeutic value of having a dog close at hand. For example, a 2007 Italian study published in the journal Anticancer Research showed that patients experienced physiological and psychological improvements when therapy dogs were present during chemotherapy treatments. The patient group engaged in animal-assisted activities had increased blood-oxygen levels and reported decreases in depression.

In 2012, about 24,750 dog/handler teams in the United States and Canada were registered with Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization that provides free visits for cancer patients, nursing homes, general hospital populations, and even in individual homes with a release from a doctor (http://www.tdi-dog.org). Various other organizations offer pet therapy; for a list, visit the American Kennel Club’s website at http://www.akc.org. 
 
Hospitals that are incorporating pet therapy into cancer treatment include Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. According to its website,
“Many people who spend time with our nurturing canines find a sense of peace, comfort, and much-needed distraction. Interacting with a dog can help:
     Lessen your anxiety and distress
     Reduce the need for pain medication
     Support you emotionally
     Make you feel more comfortable communicating with your healthcare team”
Sloan-Kettering’s Caring Canine teams adhere to strict guidelines. Handlers follow infection control procedures and wash their hands frequently, and dogs are washed before they visit patients.
When you return home after a bone marrow transplant, like I did, your house must be as clean as possible be to protect the immune system. In the past, pets had to be taken out of the house. But by the time I got my first transplant, in 2003, that rule had been taken off the books because it had upset too many patients. I was glad to hear that.
Dogs are not the only animals used for therapy. Pet Partners, formerly called the Delta Society (deltasociety.org), has programs that incorporate cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, horses, domesticated rats, llamas, donkeys, cockatoos and African gray parrots. 
Some of those sound a little odd to me, but I suppose it takes all kinds.

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