Study Tests Power of Dogs Against Cancer


Sometimes the best medicine isn’t a drug, it’s a dog that can make a kid feel better – or better known as dogs against cancer. In recent times, doctors say they’ve known about the value of therapy pets in hospitals for years. Many parents swear by them as a remedy to soothe a scared or angry child. But those reports have been more-so anecdotal… until now.

Getting a significant backing of a nearly $1 million grant from veterinary health firm Zoetis, the American Humane Association is launching what advocates say is the first clinical trial of the effects of what’s known as animal-assisted therapy, (AAT), on young cancer patients and their families. The goal is to gather the first-ever clinical details about the physical and psychological effects of animal therapy on the child patients, their families and caregivers, AHA’s national director of humane research and therapy,  Amy McCullough said. If the results show a clear benefit, they could be paving the way for far wider use of some 50,000 registered therapy dogs in children’s hospitals nationwide.

“It all comes down to access,” said McCullough. “Obviously, we know that the children like to see the dogs, but the folks in risk management want some clinical data.”

Five children’s hospitals have agreed to participate in the year-long study of kids, ages ranging from 3 to 12, who get regular chemotherapy in outpatient clinics. The study will be tracking blood pressure, heart rate and psychological responses in the kids, their families and the caregivers, McCullough stated. As well, it will also test the effect on the dogs, measuring the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the animals’ saliva – both before and after visits.

Dr. ZoAnn Dreyer said that the results of the study, which are expected in a year to 15 months, will be welcome to a pediatric cancer expert at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, which is not part of the trial. Dreyer’s hospital allows a range of animals — including dogs and miniature horses — to comfort cancer patients. But she said it will be helpful to have clear official evidence to back up what doctors already know about the benefits of therapy pets in the case of cancer patients.

“I think it plays a huge role. If they’re happy and they have a good outlook, they’re much more likely to tolerate their medicines,” she said. “A clinical trial that will no doubt be beneficial to the kids gives a lot more credence for hospitals around the country to use it.”

Photo Source: John Russell / Vanderbilt University

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