Evidence-Based Practice: Pet Therapy for Cancer Survivors 

By Stephanie DeMeyer, MA, Elaine S. DeMeyer, RN, MSN, AOCN®, BMTCN® - Last Updated: December 12, 2022

If you have a pet, you know the joy of coming home to unconditional love after a long day. Being greeted by a wagging tail or welcoming meows can relieve stress and ease tension. Pets also help you keep a regular sleep/wake schedule and encourage exercise even when you don’t feel like it. With all these benefits, it is no wonder that pet therapy, also called animal-assisted therapy (AAT), has been around since the 1800s. Learn more about pet therapy, how it works, how it can improve the lives of cancer survivors, and your role as an oncology nurse. 

What Is Pet Therapy?  

Pet therapy uses animal companions to aid people experiencing a physical or mental illness. Although dogs are commonly used (canine therapy), other animals like cats, birds, and farm animals also can provide benefits. Pet therapy can help not only patients but also their caregivers and the staff caring for these patients.  

What Are the Benefits of Pet Therapy?  

The act of petting an animal can improve physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being through its repetitive, meditation-like motions. Living with a pet is proven to decrease the cortisol stress hormone that negatively affects the immune system. Besides fighting stress, having a pet can also lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  

According to the American Cancer Society and several studies, pet therapy in cancer care can: 

  • Offer distraction in the care environment 
  • Provide comfort and help with pain, thereby decreasing the need for medication
  • Lower fatigue and improve blood oxygenation 
  • Improve mood, depression, and psychological distress 
  • Reduce anxiety for caregivers, especially parents of pediatric oncology patients 
  • Encourage activities such as walking or playing 

In addition, taking a pet on a walk or to a park can provide interactions with other people. Meeting others increases one’s social support and fights loneliness.  

What Risks Are Involved? 

Although the benefits of pet therapy are extensive, there are a few potential concerns for cancer survivors. First, pets may not be appropriate for neutropenic or immunosuppressed patients or those with allergies. Second, some people may fear certain animals, so it is important to individualize pet therapy. Finally, animals used for pet therapy may not work well in all environments. For example, a large dog may do better in a community room rather than an individual patient’s room to reduce the risk of them bumping into medical equipment.  

Once at home, cancer survivors may benefit from an emotional support animal (ESA). Like some benefits of pet therapy, an ESA provides support through companionship to help ease mental health conditions like panic attacks, anxiety disorders, phobias, or major depression. The patient needs a letter from a mental health professional to document the need for an ESA, and the ESA should be registered with the Office of Disability Services in case housing requires it.  

How Can I Encourage My Workplace to Allow Pet Therapy? 

Discuss with your care team if you want to add pet therapy for your patients. Several organizations help coordinate free, matched pet therapy visits for patients with cancer or your care team. Consider reaching out to see if there are any pet therapy organizations in your area like: 

Larger organizations, like Baylor Scott & White Health (BSWH) in Texas, often collaborate with a provider, like Canine Companions. For example, in their AAT program, more than 90 specially trained therapy dogs work with patients for 1-4 hours at a time. The BSWH manager requests a visit for patients or oncology staff, and the dog shows up with its BSWH badge.  

In addition, hospitalized patients can benefit from seeing their own pets. Their furry friend can give them something to look forward to or work toward a goal. For example, one stem cell-transplant patient with ongoing graft-versus-host disease didn’t want to get out of bed. She showed signs of withdrawal and depression. So, the care team arranged for her daughter to bring in her cat for a few hours several days per week. This low-technology, low-cost intervention improved her recovery by distracting her from her own experience and letting her focus on her beloved cat. 

Oncology nurses can promote and support pet therapy by educating the care team about the evidence and resources to support pet therapy. The real proof, however, may be in the smiles and joy the animals bring to patients and staff.  


What Is Animal Therapy? 

Pet Therapy for Cancer Patients 

Pets, Support, and Service Animals for People with Cancer 

The “Pet Effect” in Cancer Patients: Risks and Benefits of Human–Pet Interaction 

Impact of an Animal-Assisted Therapy Programme on Physiological and Psychosocial Variables of Paediatric Oncology Patients 

Therapy Dog International 

Pet Partners 

The Good Dog Foundation 

CancerCare Pet Assistance & Wellness (PAW) Program 

Canine Companions