Animal-Assisted Therapy for Childhood Cancer Reduces Stress, Improves Communication


Man’s best friend has joined the fight against cancer by significantly helping families of children undergoing treatment.

Man’s best friend has joined the fight against cancer by significantly helping families of children undergoing treatment, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing.

The Canines and Childhood Cancer Study — the first and largest randomized, controlled clinical trial to measure the effects of animal-assisted therapy in the field of pediatric oncology – recently showed significant benefits to families in a time of great need.

“There are more than 10,000 new diagnoses of childhood cancer every year, and 40,000 children that are undergoing treatment in the U.S.,” Ashleigh Ruehrdanz, MPH, Program Manager and International Review Board Administrator at American Humane, said in an interview with CURE. “We thought it was important to identify and evaluate potential complimentary programming that may aid in decreasing some of the psychosocial effects of both the diagnosis and the treatment itself.”

The use of therapy dogs to help those facing difficult illnesses is certainly not a new concept, however, research has never scientifically proven its effects from a psychosocial standpoint. In turn, animal-assisted therapy has not been recognized, or even funded for that matter, as a sound treatment option.

“Because of the increased use of these programs, yet having very little evidence about them, we felt that was the biggest gap and justified why it was important to really understand the effects of these programs as they are being implemented throughout the country,” said Ruehrdanz.

First, the researchers conducted a comprehensive needs assessment, launched in 2010, to determine the current state of research for animal-assisted therapy and pediatric oncology. Next, a pilot study was executed at two hospital sites to help design and implement the full clinical trial.

The clinical trial was conducted at five hospital sites across the country and followed 106 pediatric patients, aged 3 to 17 years, who were newly diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy in an outpatient clinic. Sixty children received regular visits from therapy dogs and 46 children received standard treatment.

Children in the treatment group received 20-minute sessions with a therapy dog about once a week for four months, in addition to their standard care.

The animal-assisted therapy programs used a variety of dog breeds, ranging in shape and size. The canines were screened to ensure they were able to perform these duties. Ruehrdanz noted these dogs typically have a calm demeanor about them. They then underwent rigorous training, while comprehensive safety and health protocols were put in to place at each hospital.

The researchers specifically focused on the impact animal-assisted therapy had on stress, anxiety and health-related quality of life. After seven years of research, American Humane provided evidence that regular visits from a therapy dog can provide psychosocial benefits to children undergoing treatment, as well as their parents.

Pediatric patients who received animal-assisted therapy remained stable in regards to their disease-related concerns, whereas the control group showed increases in quality of life measures. Additionally, parents in the treatment group reported that their children had significant improvements in school functioning.

“That is important because disease-related worry are things like: Will this cancer come back? Will I die from this disease?” said Ruehrdanz. “So, having the dog there seemed to make an effect where they at least felt more comfortable with their primary diagnosis and the disease itself.”

The study — which was also supported by Zoetis and the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) – specifically highlighted the positive effect that therapy dogs had on parents. The data showed improved communication within families and between parents and medical staff as well. In turn, these improvements can lead to better medical care and reductions in levels of stress, Ruehrdanz said

“I’m sure you can imagine if you heard that your child was diagnosed with cancer, it’s going to hit you in a very different way than it is going to hit your child because you are an adult. You probably have more experience, more knowledge, you may have someone you know who has gone through cancer and may or may not have survived,” she added.

“By allowing us to find these effects of having reduced stress and improvements in communication, I think you will see a family effect, in that, the less stressed parents are, generally you would assume that children and the family unit would feel less stressed as well.”

In addition to its effects in humans, the researchers also set out to see how animal-assisted therapy affected the dogs as well, measuring the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the dogs' saliva after visits. Participating therapy dogs showed no signs that suggested these activities caused distress or harmed the welfare of the animals.

Most importantly, Ruehrdanz highlighted that no adverse events or reported incidences occurred. “At a very basic level, these programs are not causing any harm to any of the patients that are being exposed to them.”

The researchers are hoping these findings further increase access to therapy animals in hospitals, especially in pediatric oncology units; support enhanced therapy dog training and practice; and improve the overall well-being of these families.

“We’re just really proud to have had the opportunity to conduct the largest clinical trial of its kind in this field, and to provide promising evidence that implementing these interventions in to pediatric oncology settings are neither harmful to humans or animals, and actually may serve to improve the psychosocial outcomes for families undergoing these difficult times,” said Ruehrdanz.

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