The Role and Impact of Animals With Pediatric Patients

Anna Tielsch Goddard, MSN, BS, RN, CPNP-PC; Mary Jo Gilmer, PhD, MBA, RN-BC, FAAN


Pediatr Nurs. 2015;41(2):65-71. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Animal-facilitated therapy (AFT), more specifically known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT) or "pet therapy," has had an increased presence in the literature with a surge of recent research methodologies exploring this complementary alternative medicine (CAM) intervention. However, limited studies have been conducted in the pediatric population, with many articles anecdotal in nature. A literature review included primary data sources PubMed, PsychINFO, Medline, and CINAHL, and yielded positive and beneficial outcomes to be gained through AAT in the pediatric population. Primary outcome variables of decreased anxiety and pain are the most commonly reported results. Further research studies are indicated to include the effects of AFT with children with different diseases and diagnoses. Exploration of other psychosocial and physical variables, such as self-esteem, would be useful. Interdisciplinary strategies are needed to develop interventions to help reduce patient symptoms and treatment-associated stress, as well as to facilitate healing and wellness beyond traditional medical treatment plans. Complementary therapies are of continued interest to the health care community, especially for pediatric nurses. Effective use of animals to facilitate conversation, lead discussion, or break communication barriers has been demonstrated through both research and anecdotal reports.


The human-animal bond continues to be a topic of exploration in research, philosophy, and psychology. Animalfacilitated therapy (AFT) is considered to be a subset of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) because it complements treatment and affects the way a patient experiences symptoms (Urbanski & Lazenby, 2012). The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) (2012) estimates that 69.9 million U.S. households own a pet dog, and 74.4 million own a pet cat. Veterinary researchers have found that benefits to pet ownership include an increase in social interactions and attention, improvement in mood, and extended life expectancy (Beetz, Uvnas-Moberg, Julius, & Kotrschal, 2012; O'Haire, 2010).

Clear distinctions exist between therapy and service animals. Service animals are trained, often with specific purpose, to aide with specific disabilities, such as visual or mobility impairments, and are owned by the person for whom they provide service. Service animals are also legally defined and recognized by federal law (Rossetti & King, 2010). For example, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses are required to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animal onto premises where customers are allowed, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, and sports facilities (U.S. Department of Justice, 2008).

Companion animals, a subset of service animals, have received increased attention for their value in detecting underlying disease in their owners, including cancer, seizures, and hypoglycemia (Wells, 2012). As opposed to the federal recognition of service dogs, therapy animals are not defined or regulated by the federal government. Therapy animals are usually not owned by the clients or responsible for their well-being, and are brought to the pet therapy session by the owner, who is called the "handler" in these sessions. Therapy animals are also not subjected to the extensive and somewhat rigorous training spanning between 1 to even 2 years that service animals endure (Rossetti & King, 2010). However, both handlers and therapy animals are required to complete prerequisite courses offered through Pet Partners licensed programs. Therapy animals must also pass a series of tests by a certified pet therapy agency to be a licensed therapy animal (Pet Partners, 2012a).