Pet Therapy, Mesothelioma, and Mental Health

When a person is diagnosed with mesothelioma, this can be a stressful and frightening time. The patient is usually filled with uncertainties, questions, and concerns, especially after the doctor’s prognosis of their illness. This fear usually stems from the fact that cancer is a significant cause of mortality in the United States. Additionally, data has demonstrated that mental and emotional distresses that sometimes come with a negative diagnosis can slow recovery time or worse. There are findings, however, which show pet therapy alone (or combined with other complementary or primary treatments) may have the potential to improve a patient’s outlook, mental, and emotional state. This could subsequently improve their prognosis. It’s important to note that nothing is 100% and every patient is affected differently. Pet therapy may help some, but not others, and there are no studies that guarantee efficacy.

Pet therapy is a type of palliative treatment. This means it cannot cure or reduce cancerous tumors and is only meant to help the patient manage pain and associated symptoms of the disease and other treatments.

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What are Therapy Animals?

A therapy animal is specially trained and serves to visit adults and children in the hospital to help them feel better. Usually, dogs are the primary choice for a therapy animal. They are easy to train and most commonly used for pet therapy. Other animals that can be used for pet therapy include:

  • Cats
  • Rabbits
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Horses

A professional will ensure the therapy animal is trained thoroughly, after first vetting them for their temperament. This helps make sure the animal is people-friendly.

The Process

Most therapy animals live at home with their owners and are brought into health facilities to do their ‘job’ during the day. To avoid overworking the pet, visits are typically less than two hours, with 15 to 20-minute increments set aside for each patient. This is long enough for the patient and animal to form a bond or mutual relationship that’s beneficial to both parties.

Dogs are allowed in chemotherapy rooms, lounges, or other group areas. A visit with the therapy animal may look like a normal pet playtime. Hugging, petting, and talking, are all activities the patient may choose to engage in. If the patient’s too sick to move or experiencing a lot of pain, a more relaxed dog can be assigned to come and keep the patient company by simply laying there.

Types of Pet Therapy

Three main kinds of pet therapy exist. The main purpose of all three is to help patients cope and manage stress, reduce negative feelings, and boost their overall psychological state. The three are:

Therapeutic Visitation

The most common type and involves owners bringing their well-behaved pets to the hospital or medical facility to visit patients.

Animal Assisted Therapy

This entails a specially trained animal. A professional will train them to assist physical and occupational therapists with patients.

Facility Therapy

Facility therapy pets live at a care center and are specially trained to monitor and interact with Alzheimer’s disease patients as well as patients with other mental illnesses.

Animal-assisted therapy and therapeutic visitation are the two types referred for cancer patients, depending on their stage of cancer, overall health, and other variables.

Benefits in Pet-Assisted Treatment

Studies have shown that when patients spend time with a therapy dog or pet, their blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels can go down. The patient may also experience a happy or ‘feel-good’ boost from the release of related hormones during this time. Additionally, doctors have seen endorphin releases in some patients who interact with pets, which can help with cancer-associated pain. Pet therapy may also assist with other emotional or mental problems that can encompass anxiety, depression, anger, or hopelessness among other things.

Aside from it influencing hormone release and improving emotional distress inside the body, this complimentary treatment can also help patients with physical therapy. When a patient pets a dog (or other animals) sensory and fine motor skills may improve slightly. If a patient is having issues getting out of bed, walking and playing with a dog (on a leash) can help encourage balance, mobility, and coordination.

Other Complementary Treatments and Mesothelioma

There are several types of palliative complementary therapies recommended for mesothelioma and other cancers. They are never to replace primary treatments, however. Others include:

  • Music therapy
  • Meditation
  • Yoga and tai chi
  • Physical therapy and exercise

Talk to your oncologist about what complementary therapies they may recommend for your situation and how they may help. Every patient is different and may experience varied outcomes with treatments of this nature.

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