There are many stories of the positive effect that therapy dogs can have on children with cancer and their families. But until now, there has been little hard scientific evidence to back them up.

young girl with dogShare on Pinterest
The study suggests therapy dogs can have a calming effect on young cancer patients.

A new trial presents some of the first solid data to support anecdotal reports of the positive impact dog therapy programs can have on children with cancer and their families.

The preliminary findings are to be presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition in Washington, DC, on Sunday, October 25th.

Around 1 in 285 children in the US will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 20. Survival rates for kids with cancer have improved dramatically in past decades. The number who die within 5 years of diagnosis has declined by more than 50% from 1975-1977 to 2007-2010.

However, this improvement has not been matched by evidence of what can be done to improve quality of life for these young patients and their families.

Therapy dogs are an example of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), where animals form part of the treatment of human patients. The aim is to improve the patient’s social, emotional or mental functioning and well-being.

Many hospitals now have therapy dogs that visit patients and their families, and the new trial takes place at five such hospitals in the US.

The new study is part of the Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) research project run by the American Humane Association and funded by Zoetis – an independent global animal health company, formerly part of Pfizer.

The project is looking at the effects of AAT on the child, the family and also the therapy dog.

Measures of blood pressure, pulse rates and anxiety levels are collected before and after a weekly visit from the therapy dog. During the visits, the children pet or talk to their therapy dog, brush its coat, look at photos of the dog, watch it perform tricks and obey commands and learn about dog breeds.

Preliminary results show that blood pressure readings in the groups receiving AAT interventions remained more stable across all sessions than in the control group that did not receive AAT, notes lead researcher Dr. Amy McCullough, national director of humane research and therapy for the American Humane Association.

The researchers also found a higher degree of variability in heart rate in the control group patients than in the patients who received AAT interventions. Dr. McCullough says:

“These findings suggest that the dog may have a calming effect on the patient.”

The following video describes the purpose and history of the CCC project and gives some examples of therapy dogs and the patients who can benefit from them:

So far, the trial has enrolled 68 children diagnosed with cancer of ages ranging from 3-17 years. Thirty-nine of the children are in the treatment group and 29 are in the control group. The researchers expect to enroll around the same number again before the study ends in 2016.

The preliminary findings also suggest that the therapy dogs have a calming effect on the parents of the young patients.

Parents of children in the control group reported fluctuating anxiety levels with peaks and troughs, while parents in the treatment group showed more stable anxiety levels and even a slight decline as they approached the end of their involvement in the study.

Overall, the children in both groups saw a fall in anxiety over the course of their involvement in the study.

The researchers are also investigating the effect of the intervention on the dogs, looking at their temperament and behavior during the visits. Dr. McCullough concludes:

This study will be a milestone in understanding of the benefits of the vital bond shared between people and animals.”

The new study follows another that Medical News Today reported earlier this year by researchers at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, who found hard evidence that therapy dogs improve the emotional well-being of adult cancer patients undergoing complex treatments. Some of the cancer patients at the New York hospital said they would have stopped their treatment before completion had it not been for the presence of the certified therapy dog and volunteer handler.