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Examining The Effect of Therapy Dogs With Childhood Cancer Patients

Animal Assisted Therapy, Pediatric Oncology, Childhood Cancer

Billions of dollars are being spent each year to better prevent and treat childhood cancer cases, but until there is a cure, what can we do each day to improve the health, healing and quality of life in children suffering from the disease? The American Humane Association, with the support of the Pfizer Foundation, has issued a report on a recent literature review about the positive effects of therapy dogs on children with cancer.

Children of all ages, races, genders and socio-economic statuses – and their families – are affected by cancer every year. Per the American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO), each year in the United States, there are approximately 13,400 children between the ages of birth and 19 years of age who are diagnosed with cancer. At any given time, there are more than 40,000 kids undergoing cancer treatment.

One of the worst side effects of pediatric cancer is fear and the stress that it produces. Feelings of loneliness, depression, and isolation are also prevalent because of the illness itself and its treatment. This mental stress may ultimately affect their physical health as well.

For many families, a pet offers daily companionship and joy in their daily lives. But there is research that our furry friends can do so much more. There is promising evidence that animals can support our health and emotional well-being by offering a chance for daily activity, relaxation and reduced anxiety, enhanced social interactions, improved self-esteem and confidence, and – of course – unconditional love.

These feelings of well-being translate into better health by decreasing blood pressure and heart rate, for example.

In 2010, the American Humane Association’s Child Protection Research Center and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Department received support from Pfizer Animal Health and the Pfizer Foundation to conduct a study on the impact of AAT on pediatric oncology patients with a goal of increasing the body of research on the benefits of human-animal interaction (HAI). Over the next three years, the collaborative group will work with up to five healthcare settings that treat children with cancer to examine what medical, behavioral, and mental health impacts AAT may have for these children and their families.

The first step in the process was to review the literature already available on the topic. More than 200 separate documents were evaluated for content; 166 were ultimately chosen to be included in the review. The team found that therapy animals had many benefits:

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• Animals are catalysts for rapport and social interaction – Dr. Boris Levinson in 1969 found that the presence of his personal dog in therapy sessions alleviated children’s anxiety and improved their ability to open up during therapy.

• Animals are sources of unconditional acceptance and social support – Pets are non-judgmental beings that help children distract themselves from their immediate problems. They also help patients feel safe, accepted and supported. The loving animals may also encourage children to perceive their relationship as having “lasting quality and permanence,” giving them hope for the future.

• Animals play a role in health and well-being – Just watching fish or petting a dog can temporarily reduce one’s blood pressure and regulate their heart rate. Alzheimer’s patients who were exposed to aquariums at mealtimes ate more, thus increasing their nutritional intake (cancer patients also often have eating difficulties during treatment). Some research suggests that owning an animal can ultimately prolong one’s lifespan – even those with chronic illnesses.

• Therapy animals can help normalize the hospital experience – Children who need to stay prolonged times away from home can become depressed due to the isolation and sterile environment of the hospital or facility. A visiting animal provides a more “homelike” atmosphere.

• Animals motivate active participation – Therapy animals can help encourage children to actively participate in treatment. They are motivated to comply with the therapeutic process and that motivation is often retained for a longer period of time.

• Animals can alleviate distress and elevate the mood.

Animal Assisted Therapy has a positive impact on pediatric oncology patients and their families, providing comfort and joy during a difficult situation.

American Humane Association
American Childhood Cancer Organization