Pet Project

The benefits of pet-patient interaction suggest it's more than "alternative therapy."

THE DOG hates the cowboy hat. The Velcro strap keeping it fastened on his head seems bothersome, though you would swear Durango is pawing at his ears only because he knows how ridiculous he looks wearing a brimmed straw hat with a little red star stitched on the front.

Outside, it’s a gray and rainy Friday in June. Inside the oncology wing of Baylor Medical Center in Irving, Texas, it’s what nurses call “Dog Day”—the afternoon when Durango, a show dog-handsome collie, and owner Sheryll Barker, PhD, roam three floors visiting patients. Too bad this Dog Day isn’t a dog day of summer, since Dr. Barker has found that sunny weather typically leads to a better reaction from patients.

You take her word for it. You have to, because there are no studies correlating sunshine and attitude. Just like there is no scientific evidence suggesting what Dr. Barker and Durango do each Friday—pet therapy—has any medical benefits. So, for now, you take her word that it does.

It’s the hope of a growing number of doctors, researchers and animal behaviorists that, in the very near future, pet-patient interaction will shed its “alternative therapy” tag like Durango’s winter coat. Scientifically measuring the benefits of pet therapy was the genesis behind Michigan State University’s Human-Animal Bond Initiative, an annual conference of pet experts that met for the fourth time in late September.

The recent push for scientific studies is a marked departure for a treatment that has been historically supported by purely anecdotal evidence.

The goal is that scientific research will validate animal-assisted therapies and help convince skeptics and critics of its value. Studies would also help pet therapists confirm that putting a funny hat on a 75-pound collie and having it interact with someone undergoing cancer treatment is, as they expected, doing more for the patient than goading an easy laugh.

The recent push for scientific studies is a marked departure for a treatment that has been historically supported by purely anecdotal evidence. Experts in the field say it’s been that way since pet therapy took off in the 1980s, when its rising popularity spurred dozens of books, scads of new volunteer organizations and newspaper articles that began with gimmicky lines like, “Will your doctor soon say, ‘Take two hugs from your dog and call me in the morning?’”

To be sure, the exposure has helped pet therapy become more commonplace. But some doctors and researchers say the practice of putting pets and patients together is an old dog that, with the support of scientific evidence, can maybe learn some new tricks.

“There are a lot of people who think they have the smartest dog in the world, drag it off to places and call that pet therapy,” says Lana Kaiser, RN, MD, DVM, founder of the Human-Animal Bond Initiative. “We didn’t want to get into that. We need a more research-oriented, scientific approach. We figured that in order to gain some mainstream acceptance, there had to be some data behind the use of animals.”

Of course, there are plenty of cancer patients and survivors—like Linda VanDeventer, 40, of Naperville, Illinois—who don’t need reports or data to certify the positives of pet therapy. After undergoing a double mastectomy following her breast cancer diagnosis in 1999, VanDeventer struggled with treatment, her new appearance, a divorce and raising twin boys on her own.

The dogs are always there for you. They make you smile and make you remember that life is light because they’re so silly.

After renting out her old house to help get her finances in order, VanDeventer and sons Michael and James, now 13, moved into a new house with a fence. A secured backyard allowed the family to adopt two Golden retriever puppies, a pair that would quickly provide immeasurable comfort and support to VanDeventer—a woman who, by her own account, is the sort who “continually has some type of challenge.”

“They give you unconditional love, which means a lot,” says VanDeventer, who will finally cease five years of tamoxifen use in December. “The dogs are always there for you. They make you smile and make you remember that life is light because they’re so silly. They help you keep in mind that life is fun.”

That unconditional love, support and the universal nonjudgmental nature of animals are benefits Edward Creagan, MD, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, has long embraced. He is so convinced of animals’ ability to motivate and emotionally heal that he takes pet names with patient histories and even suggests—dare say, “prescribes”—pet interactions to some patients in certain situations.

Dr. Creagan has closely watched ongoing research. He’s quick to point out a controlled trial that showed individuals who ate meals at an aquarium had greater food intake than those eating alone, as well as one suggesting heart attack victims who owned pets had a greater probability of being alive one year later.

“I don’t think we can relegate these observations to the world of interesting anecdotes,” says Dr. Creagan, who includes the importance of animals in his book, How Not to Be My Patient. “I think we’ve clearly crossed the threshold into rock-solid science.”

The end game of all this research, he says, is a day when the science will validate pet therapy in the eyes of insurance providers and reimburse patients.

“I can clearly envision the day when third-party carriers will reimburse for the services of Fido or Spot.”

Pet-patient research quietly began in the early 1990s, but the Human-Animal Bond Initiative has served to highlight existing studies and promote new research. The greatest challenge, of course, in collecting data on pet therapy is measuring human emotions that are not scientifically measurable. Qualitative psychological studies, for instance, seek to gauge happiness or cheerfulness through interviews after an animal interaction. There are also physiological studies measuring levels of blood pressure and certain hormones as patients visit with pets.

Still, there is much debate about how research should be conducted, and even skepticism among pet therapy supporters who question even the positive and confirming so-called evidence out there.

“Much of the literature, particularly on the writing side, is self-published, non-peer reviewed that the therapeutic community takes as gospel,” Dr. Kaiser says. “But we in the scientific community are saying, ‘Hey, wait a second, there’s a problem here with this research.’”

And not all organizations involved with pet therapy are perking up their ears to the resurgence of research, either. That includes the Delta Society, the Washington-based institute that is the largest and most recognized pet therapy advocate in the country. Coordinators of more than 11,000 pet-partner teams in all 50 states, the Delta Society isn’t waiting on scientific evidence to let out a sigh of validating relief. “For some people there is never going to be enough research,” says Delta Society resource support coordinator Michelle Cobey.

Transferring diseases between animals and cancer patients was once also a prevailing concern for hospitals wary to participate in visiting pet therapy programs, but those fears have largely been quashed. Back at Baylor Medical Center in Texas, for instance, only once has there been a transferred infection in the more than 10 years the hospital has been letting therapeutic animals visit—and the infection was given by a patient to the dog, not the other way around.