Anyone who has been severely ill and has a dog knows that the medicine the doctor prescribes may help with symptoms, but the four-legged friend is a tonic that keeps spirits up. A new clinical trial is testing whether prescribing puppies helps with comforting kids fighting cancer.
Dogs have proven themselves as valuable therapy pets for post-traumatic stress, depression, lowering blood pressure and relieving anxiety. They have proven to comfort and cheer. But, using them to formally soothe scared children in a clinical setting had not really been scientifically tested for effectiveness, until a small pilot study last year.
A new, larger study is being financed by a $1 million grant from Zoetis, a veterinary health firm, and matching funds from the Pfizer Foundation. The clinical trial is being launched by the American Humane Association to research the effects of animal-assisted therapy on young cancer patients along with their families.
The pilot study connected six kids with pets and was deemed effective. So, building on that pilot, researchers have designed a controlled year-long Canines and Childhood Cancer study. This first-of-a-kind study will use up to 200 dogs and puppies prescribed and trained to provide animal-assisted therapy for children diagnosed with cancer.
The researchers plan to follow 100 children after being newly diagnosed with cancer. Fifty of the kids will receive regular targeted visits from therapy dogs. The remainder will have standard treatment and no four-legged visitors. A therapy dog will visit the children and families in the dog group weekly. The visits will be video-taped for later review.
The cancer patients, their families and caregivers will have their blood pressure, heart rate and any other psychological responses monitored. They will particularly try to ascertain if the stress levels of patients and their families improve with the furry visitors. The canines will also be tested with saliva samples measuring the level of the stress hormone cortisol to see if they show signs of stress. The dogs will be tested before and after visits.
The president and CEO of the American Humane Association, Robin Ganzert, noted that it will be important to have evidence-based data to demonstrate the effectiveness of therapy dogs for kids.
Some hospitals already allow a range of animals to comfort cancer patients. But there has not been a controlled study with clinical evidence to support the anecdotal observations in many hospitals or homes than dogs are effective at befriending and calming patients. If the Canines and Childhood Cancer results show a clear benefit, which is largely expected, there could be far wider use of registered therapy dogs in children’s hospitals. The Humane Association ultimately would like therapy dogs to become a standard part of care for seriously ill kids in hospitals.
Therapy dogs are trained to be more than ordinary pets, according to Scott Baggett, a licensed evaluator and certifier for Pet Partners, an agency that matches registered therapy animals and owners with those needed the visits. Before being certified, would-be therapy dogs are given rigorous obedience tests. They also have to be clean and healthy. Most importantly, the dogs and puppies prescribed as therapy pets must like meeting people, especially playing with kids for this cancer study.
By Dyanne Weiss