Research and commentary

Assisted therapy dogs in cancer services for children

Moreira RL, Gubert FA, Sabino LMM et al (2016) Assisted therapy with dogs in pediatric oncology: relatives' and nurses' perceptions. Revista Brasileira de Enfermagem. 69, 6, 1122-1128.

Moreira RL, Gubert FA, Sabino LMM et al (2016) Assisted therapy with dogs in pediatric oncology: relatives' and nurses' perceptions. Revista Brasileira de Enfermagem. 69, 6, 1122-1128.
Therapy with dogs is popular among children with cancer. Picture: iStock


Healthcare professionals are keen to find alternative therapies that may help reduce the stress of hospital admissions, especially in the treatment of cancer, which is often a traumatic experience. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves using animals to help improve patients’ health and well-being, and it can be used to alleviate stressful situations.


The aims of this research study are to understand perceptions of assisted therapy with dogs (ATD) among healthcare professionals, and the families of children and adolescents with cancer.


This was a qualitative study that took place in a paediatric cancer centre at a hospital in north-east Brazil. It had a sample size of 16 participants, six of whom were nurses or nurse technicians working at the centre, and ten of whom were family members of the child or adolescent patients at the unit. Each participant undertook four one-hour visits with the assisted therapy dog. Methods of data collection included observation of the visits, and semi-structured interviews conducted with the children’s parents or carers and the nursing staff after the four visits had ended. A content-analysis technique was adopted to assess the data.


The study identifies a lack of knowledge about AAT. Professionals and family members did not understand the benefits of AAT to health promotion or how it works, but considered it a form of entertainment or distraction. AAT is difficult to implement as a productive form of therapy in healthcare settings, but both groups of participants praised the use of the dog, and commented on the difference it made to children and adolescents. They said that AAT not only helped to alleviate some of the distress, fear, and anxiety that children and adolescents feel before treatment, but also improved communication between patients and healthcare professionals.


The study concludes that AAT, expecially the use of assistance-therapy dogs, benefits children and adolescents with cancer, and more awareness of this therapy is needed.

Assisted therapy with dogs is an important and effective tool that should not be overlooked

AAT has been documented as far back as 1869, when Florence Nightingale used it with her patients (Goddard et al 2015). ATD is the more popular AAT therapy due to dogs’ affectionate nature and ability to be trained (Bert et al 2016). Various studies have demonstrated the many benefits of ATD, including its ability to reduce fear and anxiety; create more effective communication between service users, their families and healthcare professionals; and improve mobility and quality of life (Goddard et al 2015). It can help patients adapt to the hospital environment, for example, by reducing their anxiety and trauma, and provide light relief in a time of stress. These effects can, in turn, improve compliance and well‑being.  

The use of ATD in Moreira et al’s (2016) study not only benefited children and young people but also had a positive effect on nurses. It improved their relationships with their patients, brightened their mood and increased efficiency. However, the nurses interviewed had reservations about ATD because of insufficient knowledge about implementation.

The study’s results cannot be generalised, however, due to the small sample size of 16 participants. 

ATD has often been overlooked due to insecurities about the risks. The risk of infection appears to be the biggest concern, although this article suggests that children are more likely to contract infections from humans than from dogs. One study has shown there was a reduction of infections after ATD, due to increased vigilance and hygiene measures (Silveira et al 2011).

Research into AAT focuses on adults, with only anecdotal evidence available in child and adolescent healthcare (Goddard et al 2015). More research and a greater understanding among nursing staff, parents and carers could support wider implementation of this seemingly effective and powerful therapy.


Compiled by Rachel Grieve, undergraduate nursing student, University of Leeds, Leeds, on behalf of the RCN’s Research in Child Health community

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