Lending a Helping Paw
Written and Photographed By Mark Kostich

Clinical 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Inmates in prison that are allowed to take care of small animals such as birds have proven to become less violent, less withdrawn and even more cooperative.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 technical.

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 course agreed.

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 burden.


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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