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

Benefits of Canine Therapy

Much of the research on AFT has been done in the adult population with studies in pediatrics consisting mainly of anecdotal evidence, consistent with the research trend of using adult participants as research subjects. In these adult studies, therapy reduced pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in both inpatient and outpatient populations (Marcus, 2012). Studies done in nursing care facilities have shown a decrease in loneliness and anhedonia (Banks & Banks, 2002; Chu et al., 2009; Nathans-Barel, Feldman, Berger, Modai, & Silver, 2005). In one study of adult patients receiving chemotherapy, 86% of patients opted to have their chemotherapy performed in a room with a therapy dog when given the option (Davis, 1988). Further, a statistically significant decrease in depression scores in the patients receiving dog therapy (p = 0.01), and patients experienced increased arterial oxygen saturation (p = 0.004) (Davis, 1988).

Therapy dogs have even been shown to reduce anxiety scores in patients waiting for appointments (Ruchman, Ruchman, Jaeger, Durand, & Kelly, 2011). Investigators found a 33% reduction in anxiety scores after spending 15 minutes with a therapy dog prior to a scheduled MRI (p < 0.001) (Ruchman et al., 2011). Other adult literature reports that AAT enhances socialization, activities of daily living, and general well-being in adults with mental health diagnoses, such as dementia and schizophrenia (Barak, Savorai, Mavashev, & Beni, 2001; Rossetti & King, 2010).

A larger study conducted in an outpatient tertiary care pain management clinic was designed to explore potential benefits in using therapy dogs in a chronic pain facility (Marcus et al., 2012). Rigorous methodology, such as the use of a single therapy dog and handler for all 295 therapy dog visits, was used to control for confounding variables. Pain severity was significantly reduced in 23% of patients. Among patients with a pre-AAT pain score greater than 5 (with numeric pain ratings of 5 or higher correlating with substantial pain-related interference and disability), clinically meaningful pain relief occurred in 26.2% of patients with the visiting therapy dog. Among patients with primary mood disorders (to include depression and anxiety), significant improvements in anxiety were found after the AAT intervention (p = 0.001) (Marcus et al., 2012). Investigators also included qualitative themes verbalized by the therapy dog participants, with overarching themes reported as time with the dog reduces discomfort; time with the dog is relaxing; the dog provides a positive distraction from symptoms; patient comments on overall positive impression of the dog. Patient comments included "this dog is like a sanctuary to me" and "this dog helps me to forget my misery and pain" (Marcus et al., 2012, p. 53).