Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Therapy

PEP Topic 

Animal-assisted therapy is a recognized complementary therapeutic approach using animals to increase patients’ psychological and physical well-being. Animals involved are trained and certified, and animal-assisted therapy has been used to assist in physical rehabilitation, management of pain, and in long-term care settings, as well as other applications. In patients with cancer, evaluation of animal-assisted therapy was conducted related to management of fatigue.

Effectiveness Not Established

Research Evidence Summaries

Johnson, R. A., Meadows, R. L., Haubner, J. S., & Sevedge, K. (2008). Animal-assisted activity among patients with cancer: effects on mood, fatigue, self-perceived health, and sense of coherence. Oncology Nursing Forum, 35, 225–232.

doi: 10.1188/08.ONF.225-232

Intervention Characteristics/Basic Study Process:

Patients assigned to the dog visit group participated in 15-minute sessions three times per week for four weeks with one or two visitor dogs. Two female dogs (a long-haired dachshund and a whippet), accompanied by a dog handler, were used. During visiting sessions, the dogs sat on the sofa with the participant. Participants combed, petted, played, and talked with the dog. The handlers ensured the participant’s safety and recorded the dog’s behavior and nature of the interaction during these sessions. Patients assigned to the friendly human visit group met with the same adult for 15-minute sessions three times per week for four weeks. Visitors were volunteer nursing students, emeritus nursing faculty, hospital administrative staff, and community members. Visitors were instructed to engage the participant in a superficial “park bench” type of conversation, such as talk about the weather, movies, and local events. All were instructed that visits should contain no discussion of personal health or controversial matters. Patients assigned to the silent reading group read research-provided magazines for 15 minutes three times per week for four weeks. Magazines were selected based on lack of content related to health and fitness, cancer and treatments, self-help, counseling, and animal-assisted therapy. Example magazines included Newsweek, Car and Driver, and Smithsonian.

Sample Characteristics:

  • The study included 30 adults undergoing nonpalliative radiation therapy.
  • The majority of participants were Caucasian (n = 28) and female (n = 21).
  • Mean ages were 61, 59, and 58 years for the dog visit group, human visit group, and silent reading group, respectively.
  • Most participants had some college education and were married.
  • Participants had cancer at multiple sites, but the most common site was breast.
  • Patients were excluded if they were younger than 18 years, non-English speaking, had known pet allergies, were more than four weeks past initial diagnosis, or were receiving radiation therapy for metastases.


Outpatient radiation therapy units of two hospitals in a midsized city in the midwestern United States

Phase of Care and Clinical Applications:

Patients were undergoing the active treatment phase of care.

Study Design:

The study used a longitudinal, randomized pre-/posttest design with three groups:

  1. Dog visit group (n = 10)
  2. Friendly human visit group (n = 10)
  3. Silent reading group (n = 10).

Measurement Instruments/Methods:

Profile of Mood States (POMS)


Animal-assisted therapy did not result in improved fatigue compared to other groups. All groups experienced a decrease in fatigue scores between pre- and posttest scores; however, that difference did not reach statistical significance. In addition, the decline difference score for the dog visit group was smaller than the difference for both the human visit and reading groups.


  • Disease progression during the time of the intervention was not measured, and worsened cancer and the accompanying symptoms may have affected the participants’ responses.
  • The study had a small sample size.
  • The intervention time was short.
  • No neutral comparison group was included.