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BMC Palliat Care. 2017 Oct 2;16(1):50. doi: 10.1186/s12904-017-0230-z.

Animal-assisted therapy at a University Centre for Palliative Medicine - a qualitative content analysis of patient records.

Author information

Interdisciplinary Centre for Palliative Medicine, Heinrich Heine University Hospital Dusseldorf, Dusseldorf, Germany.
LVR Clinic of Psychiatry, Psychosomatic and Psychotherapy for children and adolescence, Viersen, Germany.
Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hospital Hygiene, University Hospital, Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf, Dusseldorf, Germany.
Chair of Research Methodology and Statistics in Psychology, Department of Psychology & Psychotherapy, Faculty of Health, Witten/Herdecke University, Witten, Germany.
Maudsley Training Programme, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK.
St. Christopher's Hospice, Sydenham, London, UK.



Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic concept, which has only recently been explored in more detail within the palliative care setting. A programme of AAT was begun in June 2014 at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Palliative Medicine of the University Hospital Dusseldorf, Germany. The AAT sessions were performed by two trained and certified dog assistant therapy teams (DATT). To date only very limited scientific data are available with regard to feasibility, therapeutic indications and efficacy of AAT in palliative care. The present qualitative study aims to describe the first year's practice and experience of AAT after implementation as an integral part of adjunctive therapy options offered within an academic palliative care centre.


This study is a qualitative content analysis of all post-encounter protocols of AAT interventions recorded by the dog handlers from June 2014 through May 2015. Qualitative content analysis was conducted according to Mayring's approach; the report followed the recommendations of the Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research (SRQR).


Fifty-two patients received 84 AAT interventions, with only 18 patients receiving more than one intervention due to discharge or death. In 19 cases relatives also participated in the AAT session. The inductive coding process yielded four main categories. One hundred and fifty-three codes related to the content and structure of the AAT sessions, with physical contact with the dog taking considerable precedence. The AAT sessions included conversations with the dog handler, 10.5% of which related to the current health state as well as to discussions around death and dying. Eighty-nine codes related to perceived emotional responses, with pleasure being the most often observed response. Two hundred and seventeen codes related to the effects of the AAT sessions, identifying the dog as a catalyst of communication and observing patients' physical activation or relaxation.


AAT may constitute a valuable and practicable adjunct to the interdisciplinary therapeutic repertoire of palliative care in the hospital setting. The results of this study suggest that patients may potentially benefit from AAT in terms of facilitated communication, positive emotional responses, enhanced physical relaxation or motivation for physical activation. These early stage results will need to be followed-up by more robust study designs.


Animal-assisted therapy; Dog; Palliative care

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