Ways Dogs Ease Cancer Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 23, 2024
4 min read

If you've ever owned or spent time with a friendly dog, you probably know puppy love can calm anxiety and lift your mood.

That's why you often see canines at cancer centers. Therapy dogs can bring comfort to people being treated for cancer and they may help them get better, too.

What are therapy dogs?

They're specially trained animals who visit with adults and children in the hospital to help them feel better both emotionally and physically.

Most of these dogs live at home with their owners and make routine visits to cancer facilities. The visits usually last less than 2 hours, and the animals typically stay with each person for about 15 or 20 minutes. Dogs can go to rooms, treatment areas like chemotherapy suites, and lounges or group areas.

Sessions look a lot like play. A visit can involve hugging, petting, or talking to the dog. Some people read to the pup, play with it, or even walk it.

Therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds, including golden retrievers, poodles, dachshunds, pugs, and German shepherds. But certain canines match up better with specific people. For example, an active child may do better with an active dog who likes to play and can fetch a ball. If you're not feeling well or are in pain, a calm dog who can lie on the bed with you may be a better choice.

What are the benefits?

Cancer diagnoses and treatments are stressful. Studies show that spending time with a therapy dog lowers blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. At the same time, it boosts levels of feel-good hormones.

Therapy dogs may help lessen pain, too. They might trigger the release of endorphins, which ease discomfort.

They can help with physical therapy, too. When you pet a dog, that can help improve your sensory and fine motor skills. A canine may even help you with the all-important first step: getting out of bed. Walking with a dog on a leash and playing games with it can help your balance and coordination.

What should I know?

A therapy dog should be trained, insured, and registered by a formal animal-assisted therapy program.

The dog must also:

  • Be at least 1 year old
  • Have lived in its owner's home for at least 6 months
  • Be house trained
  • Enjoy spending time with people, not just put up with it
  • Have no history of biting or aggression
  • Be able to walk on a leash (they're required to)
  • Know basic commands such as "sit," "down," "stay," "come," and "leave it." Therapy dogs may also know "Go say hello" and "Paws up," which directs them to stand with their two front feet on a stool so you can reach them for petting if you're in bed.

It's up to you if you’d like a visit. If you don't like dogs, are allergic to them, or have a higher risk of infection because of chemotherapy, you probably should skip it.

If your immune system is suppressed, make sure you get an OK from your doctor before spending time with any animal.

Are there risks?

You can rest assured that any therapy dog will be gentle and friendly. In order to become one, a canine needs to have the right temperament. If they don't, they won't be certified.

The dogs are screened regularly by a vet and kept current on all their shots, including rabies. It's possible for a dog to pass on diseases to people or injure them. But such things rarely, if ever, happen with trained, registered therapy dogs.

Cleanliness is always top of mind. Handlers are required to carry (and use) an alcohol-based sanitizer at all times. Anyone who comes in contact with the dog should wash their hands before and afterward.

The dogs are usually bathed the day before a therapy session and brushed right before seeing patients. The therapy vest many of the animals wear helps catch loose hair.

Dogs that get on beds sit on a protective cover like a sheet. The animals shouldn't come in contact with wounds or equipment, and they aren't allowed to visit patients who are eating or drinking.

How do I arrange a visit?

Dozens of therapy dog organizations across America offer visits. Most service a local area, but some will bring a pup wherever you are.

Some therapy dogs make regularly scheduled visits to facilities, say once or twice a week. If you're just not up for it when the dog comes, you can reschedule for next time.

Check with your hospital liaison to get help setting one up.