literature has long documented that animal companionship can help the pain
and discomfort associated with many of life’s greatest transitions.
Animal companionship has helped during the time of military transfers,
broken hearts, terminal illnesses, lost loved ones and teenagers going
away to college. In 1964,
American Child Psychiatrist Boris Levinson coined the phrase “pet
therapy” to describe this phenomenon.
Pet therapy has been proven to help people in many ways,
and in many different environments. Dejected nursing home patients tend to
become more optimistic and interactive when visited by pets. Inmates in
prison that are allowed to take care of small animals such as birds have
proven to become less violent, less withdrawn and even more cooperative.
Programs where small pets are brought to visit hospital patients can help
offset feelings of fear, loneliness and isolation. Pet dogs have been
reported to have a calming effect that has actually reduced owner’s
heart rates and calmed blood pressures.
The presence of pets has also been proven to increase social
skills, communication and helped make the emotionally disturbed more
responsive and even helped people live longer.
As a *Radiation Therapist (Cancer Treatment) at UNC
Hospitals, in Chapel Hill, NC for almost 8 years, I have worked with
hundreds of patients and their families, bringing them through very
difficult treatments and often during the last days of their lives.
Treating terminally ill children can be a special challenge. While their
treatment needs are essentially the same as that of an adult, a child’s
ways of caring, showing affection, and communicating can be different.
Also the amount of care, and the techniques and gestures that you use in
dealing with children when you are implementing their care is different
than with adults. For example, you might kneel down so that you can talk
to them at eye level, allowing the child to feel less intimidated; or try
to use words that they can understand rather than medical terminology; or
even explain procedures to them through circumstances that they are
familiar with. With an adult, I would tend to be more straightforward and
Caring for a terminally ill child can also be very trying
on the parents or guardians who usually have never gone through this kind
of situation before. The responsibility can easily overcome parents who
want to help, but simply don’t know how. In the end, the frustration, anxiety and stress can
negatively affect the lives of the parents as well as the child involved.
A child will need many different types of emotional support
including; acknowledgement of sadness, and help in dealing with anger,
fear, guilt and isolation. Communication is essential in these situations.
The child should be allowed and encouraged to express his or her feelings
and share their memories or ideas to help facilitate bereavement and
mental healing. They should also be allowed and encouraged to express
themselves in any artistic, musical, poetic or other creative way. This,
along with a good close relationship with the parents, can help make a
good seamless transition between phases of the illness as well as the
surrounding settings. Children, even more often than other patients must
stay in different places during various phases of their treatment.
This constant shuffling proves particularly difficult for children
to cope with.
One of my cancer patients, Bethany, helped demonstrate and
reinforce the fundamental principles underlying the term pet therapy for
me. I first met Bethany who was then an 8-year-old girl about to undergo
radiation therapy & chemotherapy at my hospital. On her first morning,
I saw her walking down the hall with one hand holding firmly to her
mother’s hand. The other towed a stuffed animal lagging near behind. She
had tied a jump rope around the stuffed animal’s neck as a makeshift
leash. I introduced myself to Bethany as her new friend, and asked her who
her friends were. She introduced her mother, and her pet Jaguar. Then she
asked if her Jaguar could go with her and get treatments too. And I of
After a week or two of seeing her drag this stuffed animal
around, I began to see the importance of her relationship with it. She had
a friend, a companion and someone (or something) that depended on her. At
the time, I was also volunteering at a local animal preserve.
The preserve had about 300 cats. They had tigers, leopards,
ocelots, servals, caracals, cougars, snow leopards and they also had
jaguars! I spoke with her doctors and inquired about her condition and the
feasibility of her association with animals. I knew that the very
treatments that were helping her had also compromised her immune system.
Her doctors gave a visit to the preserve the thumbs up so I approached her
mother, and then suggested the idea to her. Bethany was thrilled. She was
finally going to see a real jaguar up close!
The next weekend, I escorted the pair through the preserve.
Together we saw all the different animals including the jaguars. After a
two-hour tour of the compound, we went into the main building where
Bethany could see and pet the baby cats. She held and fed a baby ocelot.
She pet a baby white tiger and even got to meet and hold an injured baby
serval (a mid-sized African wild cat). I was struck by the immediate
impact that this adventure was making on her young life. This fact was
particularly evident in her association with the young serval. She
developed an instant empathy and connection with the cub, and her
instincts of care and compassion now had a platform to manifest. This kind
of spiritual link is especially important in children undergoing treatment
because it is one of the most often overlooked aspects in maintaining
their mental health and well being. We take for granted a child’s need
for love and protection, but often we forget that they also need to
provide love and protection as well.
They need to participate and feel a connection with their
surroundings and not be seen as simply an object or a disease.
Nurturing this young wild cat allowed Bethany to experience this
feeling for herself and I believe that it made a profound difference in
her ability to better cope with the impact of her cancer treatments.
After our weekend adventure, Bethany returned to her
treatments at the Hospital. She glowed after her experiences with the
animals and delighted in viewing the pictures that she and I had taken
together. Bethany still carried her Jaguar with her through the hospital.
Her hospital room was decorated with pictures of the animals that she had
seen. And when she left the hospital, she was able to return to the animal
preserve several times.
Since Bethany’s adventure, I have taken many other
patients to share the same experience. Bethany helped show me the
importance and clinical significance of pet therapy. Simply witnessing the
component of touch in these instances was tremendously uplifting. The
moment a small cat was placed into the hands of a patient one could see
the true quality and magnitude of this type of therapeutic intimacy. For
the patient, the animal offers unconditional love. It offers no opinion or
criticisms or tells them what to do or think. Instead, it is a non-verbal,
yet attentive new friend who returns love with an empathetic gaze.
Overall, “pet therapy” can dramatically help bolster
morale, communication, self-esteem, the need to be needed and can even
increase the quality of life in critically ill children. It is most
important to first consult your doctor or patient care provider to decide
what kind of animal contact is appropriate for your loved one.
While a patient’s physical health should always take precedence,
their mental health needs serious consideration, as well. Also, the
animals used in pet therapy can be easily located such as dogs, cats,
birds, rabbits and hamsters. And
even if the patient’s immune system is unable to tolerate ANY direct
animal contact, there are other alternatives like tropical fish, reptiles
and frogs that have been used with similar results. I have even heard of
hummingbird feeders being placed outside a sick boy’s window so that he
could view them when the hummingbirds would come to drink.
Consider “pet therapy” to help give an ill child a
sense of involvement, association, affection and the need to keep on
trying. It can dramatically
improve the child’s mental health and ease a parent’s caregiving
Mark Kostich is both an award winning Radiation Therapist
at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, NC, and an award winning Wildlife
photographer whose work can be seen on magazine covers, calendars, museums
and at his website www.kostich.com.
* Radiation Therapist - A Radiation Therapist is a health
care professional that uses different types of ionizing radiation to treat
illnesses, primarily cancer. The fundamental role of a Radiation Therapist
is to implement a treatment plan that has been prescribed by a radiation
oncologist and planned in connection with a physicist and a dosimetrist.
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