April 22, 2019
2 min read

Therapy dog visits ease anxiety in hospitalized children

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Photo of Katherine Hinic
Katherine Hinic

Pet therapy significantly reduced anxiety in children during hospitalization, according to a recent quasi-experimental study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing.

“A brief pet therapy visit with a trained dog and handler effectively reduced state anxiety” — or an individual’s level of anxiety at a given point in time — “in a sample of hospitalized children between the ages of 6 and 17,” Katherine Hinic, PhD, RN, CNE, professor in residence at Morristown Medical Center, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “Additionally, parents of study participants reported high levels of satisfaction with the pet therapy visits and felt that the visits were beneficial to their children as well as themselves in terms of coping with the stress of hospitalization.”

A nurse research team at Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey used the State-Trait Anxiety Scale for Children (STAIC) S-Anxiety Scale — also known as the “How I Feel Questionnaire” — to measure anxiety in children before and after their visit. Parents also completed a brief background questionnaire. Participants were aged 6 to 17 years, had no cognitive impairment and had not previously received a pet therapy visit. They were either visited by a therapy dog with a handler or by a research assistant and completed a jigsaw puzzle.

Researchers compared anxiety levels in 93 children before and after study interventions. Of those, 50 received pet therapy visits and 43 completed the puzzle. There was no significant difference in baseline anxiety levels of the two groups. Although children in both groups experienced a decrease in anxiety, those who received visits from a therapy dog had significantly lower anxiety levels (P = .004). Parents of children in the pet therapy group had higher levels of satisfaction than those who completed the puzzle.

Photo of girl with therapy dog 
Researchers found that a brief pet therapy visit with a trained dog and handler significantly reduced anxiety.
Photo courtesy of Atlantic Health System

“When resources for providing pet therapy visits are limited, clinicians may consider prioritizing children who are most affected by anxiety,” Hinic said. “Because of its positive effect of satisfaction, pet therapy can be a valuable complementary resource to contribute to a positive patient and family experience.”

The findings are supported by previous research, which found that therapy animal visits help to reduce social anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorder. There is some concern among experts that dogs may contribute to the spread of infections among hospitalized children with weakened immune systems. However, a recent study found that the spread of MRSA from therapy dogs in pediatric cancer patients could be prevented with a low-cost cleaning procedure. – by Erin Michael


Hinic K, et al. J Pediatr Nurs. 2019;doi:10.1016/j.pedn.2019.03.003.

Spielberger CD, et al. Preliminary test manual for the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children. Palo Alto, Calif: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc. 1973.

Disclosure: Hinic reports no relevant financial disclosures.