By Mark Stubis
We already know that a dog may be man’s best friend, but a new scientific study is seeking to prove that a dog can be a child’s best friend in times of greatest need.
On May 8, American Humane Association, scientists, researchers, four therapy dog teams, and country star, former nurse and animal lover Naomi Judd held a congressional briefing to discuss a groundbreaking study by American Humane Association that is the first scientific effort to document the beneficial effects of animal-assisted therapy in helping children with cancer and their families. The study is even examining the effect of such critical treatment on the therapy animals themselves. To see a short video by acclaimed filmmaker Kenn Bell about the study and the real-life impacts therapy animals can make, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QybLUoRnpgI.
Each year in the U.S., nearly 13,000 children are newly diagnosed with cancer and more than 40,000 are in treatment at any given time.
Billions of dollars are rightly being spent to pursue new treatment advancements for children with cancer, and while survivorship has fortunately increased over the past two decades, quality of life for these patients and their families remains a concern.
One promising, and underutilized weapon in the war on childhood cancer has been acknowledged anecdotally, but never before been rigorously evaluated in the context of pediatric oncology – the use of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as a complementary treatment option for children and families in their time of greatest need.
AAT is an accessible and affordable adjunctive treatment option that holds promise for populations from all ages and walks of life, including children who often have a natural affinity for animals. The documented benefits of AAT include: relaxation, physical exercise, unconditional support, improved social skills, enhanced self-confidence, and decreased loneliness and depression.
While studies have suggested the benefits of AAT, the majority of these findings have largely been anecdotal and have lacked scientific rigor, thus hindering the ability of AAT to be recognized by those in the research, funding and healthcare fields as a sound treatment option. Additional key research gaps – such as the impact of AAT on therapy animals – also exist, which render AAT best practices incomplete.
Three years ago, American Humane Association began the Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) Study to rigorously measure the well-being effects of AAT for children with cancer, their parents/guardians, and the therapy dogs who visit them. The CCC Study is sponsored through a generous grant from Zoetis with matching funds from the Pfizer Foundation. Additional funds were received through a grant from the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation.
American Humane Association created a three-stage scientific study consisting of a comprehensive needs assessment (Stage I), a six-month pilot study (Stage II), and a full clinical trial (Stage III – current stage).
Five hospital sites will collect data over a 12+ month period for the Full Clinical Trial:
• St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, FL
• Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, OR
• UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento, CA
• UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center/Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts in Worcester/North Grafton, MA
• Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN
Pediatric cancer patients undergoing a consistent, regular chemotherapy treatment regime who receive AAT will experience less stress/anxiety and will have an improved health-related quality of life throughout the course of their treatment sessions than patients who do not receive AAT.
Parents/guardians of pediatric cancer patients undergoing a consistent, regular chemotherapy treatment regime who receive AAT will experience less stress/anxiety throughout the course of their child’s treatment sessions than parents/guardians of patients who do not receive AAT.
Participating therapy dogs will exhibit minimal distress over the course of their inclusion in the study.
Selected Study Findings to Date:
AAT appears especially promising in helping people deal with the effects of cancer as it is a “family disease” that has far-reaching impacts on just not the patient, but all members of the family.
AAT protocols are not consistent from handler to handler or from site to site, which has historically made it difficult to ascertain the effects of this therapy and therefore widen its implementation.
Important considerations for implementing and studying AAT in hospitals include addressing infection and safety risk concerns, as well as dog phobias, allergies, and aversions. In addition, the dog’s needs for safety, comfort and rest must be respected.
Stress, anxiety, and health-related quality of life may be the best outcomes to measure, considering the needs of this population and hospital policies on when therapy dogs can visit.
According to preliminary canine salivary cortisol data, post-AAT session cortisol levels tended to be lower than the baseline averages for most participating therapy dogs, indicating they did not experience distress in providing AAT sessions with the children.
You can learn more about the study at http://www.americanhumane.org/interaction/programs/animal-assisted-therapy/canines-and-childhood-cancer.html