For Sick Kids, Puppy Love Can Be the Best Medicine


We all love our pets. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates there are 69.9 million U.S. homes with a pet dog, and 74.4 million households where a cat is found. Veterinary researchers will tell you that pet ownership has multiple benefits, including an increase in social interactions, an improvement in moods, and an expanded life expectancy. And, according to pediatricians like Annamaria Kontor who take a more holistic approach to medicine, pet therapy can also have remarkable benefits for sick children.

Puppy Love

Nothing New Here

Florence Nightingale, the mother of the modern nursing profession, used what she called “animal-companion therapy” to help her sick and disabled patients. Nightingale used pets with wounded soldiers in the early 19th century and described the benefits of the companion animals as a “therapy” for her patients.

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, recognized the role of animals in therapy, stating that his own dog had a “special sense” about him. Freud believed the presence of his dog was especially calming and useful with children. He was known to bring his Chow Chow, “Jo-Fi” into therapy sessions with ill children.

Today, Pet Partners is an international nonprofit professional organization of volunteers who work with those interested in animal-assisted therapy. Pet Partners provides professional resources, training programs for pets and volunteers, and research for those interested in animal-centered therapeutic services.

Pets and Sick Children

Studies done among pediatric populations have supported the benefits of animal therapy with children. It was determined that the presence of the animals benefited the children on a physiological, psychological and emotional level. For example, children in pain showed the animals were a distraction from the pain and the clinical situation, providing pleasure and eliciting a happiness response. The pets provided entertainment, reminding the child of home and providing the job of snuggling and contact with the pet. The therapy animal provided companionship and had a calming effect on the child which resulted in pain easement.

On a pediatric oncology unit, it was discovered that 89 percent of the children who participated in animal therapy showed an increased sense of independence and increased appetites. These children also demonstrated decrease fear and pain during their treatments and procedures. In addition, a survey of the staff on the oncology unit showed that the presence of the pets, coupled with the positive effect on the children, resulted in an overall improvement in morale and motivation in the registered nurses on the oncology floor.

Include Pets in Your Child’s Holistic Health Care

Medicine isn’t just about injecting drugs into our bodies and surgical procedures. More and more health care professionals are taking a holistic, or “whole body,” approach to health. Holistic medicine focuses on preventative care, natural methods and remedies. The use of animal-assisted therapy and treatments fits into the holistic view of treating patients.

Pediatricians are studying the benefits of a holistic approach to patient care, in particular the care of children with cancer. By looking at the oncology pediatric patient as a whole being, the pediatric oncologist who incorporates pet therapy into the child’s treatment is providing an avenue for pain relief and a loving, gentle adjunct to the often harsh treatment that a cancer diagnosis requires.

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