DEC 26, 2017 09:47 AM PST

Therapy Dogs Cheer Kids With Cancer

WRITTEN BY: Julia Travers

For children living with cancer, spending time with a therapy dog can provide both a fun distraction and a meaningful uplift. Having relationships and interactions with other species has been proven to offer a variety of health benefits for humans, including lowering anxiety, pain and loneliness and improving cardiovascular health. A study published in in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing in December 2017 set out to measure if spending time with a therapy dog can alter stress levels for young patients, their families and the dogs themselves.

Swoosh, a therapy dog at work, credit: Vanderbilt.edu

The four-month study was the first randomized clinical trial exploring the benefits of Animal Assisted Interaction (AAI). Out of 106 children receiving pediatric cancer treatment in the study, 60 were paired with therapy dogs and 46 were not. Blood pressure and pulse measurements and a stress questionnaire were used to evaluate stress levels.

Pediatric hospitals in Nashville; Sacramento, California; Portland, Oregon; Tampa, Florida; and Boston participated. The study was sponsored by American Humane, with funding from the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute and global animal health company Zoetis.

Michelle Thompson has been the human half of a pet therapy team for six years. Her cohort, a 10-year-old toy Pomeranian name Swoosh, is beloved by 7-year-old Mitchell Montalbano and 9-year-old Bryce Greenwell. They have both undergone treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a common childhood cancer. They met Swoosh during the study and both developed strong bonds with him. In 2014, Swoosh won the Animal Medical Center’s Top Dog award.

"I think everyone should have a chance with Swoosh. Let them have the feeling that I once did. Nothing in words can describe how good it felt to see Swoosh again,” Bryce tells CNN. His mom Jenny explains that Bryce often takes anti-anxiety medication prior to his appointments, "But when he saw Swoosh, his anxiety level went down without the use of medicine.”

Bryce and Swoosh, credit: CNN

While the families give highly positive personal reviews of AAI, the study did not reveal a statistically significant difference between the groups of children who received dog-therapy and those who didn’t – they both experienced a reduction in stress over the period of the study. Some children experienced a rise in blood pressure after dog therapy. American Humane’s director of research Amy McCullough attributes this to the fact that they were more active while playing with the dog than the children in the control group, who were usually involved in more stationary activities like reading.

A significant reduction in parent stress for families undergoing dog therapy was a key finding. The study’s authors write that “significant improvements in parental stress and anxiety, namely communication and emotional distress, may positively affect the child with cancer, as well as family functioning and adjustment generally … ” The therapy dogs were not found to experience stress during the sessions. No negative incidents such as scratches or infections occurred during the study.

Mitchell’s family is very grateful to have met Swoosh. They report that he became withdrawn and morose after his initial cancer diagnosis. But Thompson says, “after their first visit with Swoosh, Mitchell started talking again, and he just talked about Swoosh constantly.” His Mom shares her surprise when her son asked to go to chemotherapy treatments, just so he could play with Swoosh. Mitchell encourages other children to use therapy dogs; “It would not make them scared anymore. I think they'd be happy."

About the Author
  • Julia Travers is a writer, artist and teacher. She frequently covers science, tech and conservation.
You May Also Like
JUN 14, 2018
Health & Medicine
JUN 14, 2018
Fitness Lowers the Risk of Death for Cancer Survivors
It’s no secret that practicing a healthy lifestyle can help you live longer and feel better. Exercise and a nutritious diet are always wise deci...
JUL 09, 2018
Cell & Molecular Biology
JUL 09, 2018
Scientists Found a New Way to Treat Lung Cancer
Small cell lung cancer is an aggressive type that can be fatal; there were few treatments for the disease. That may have changed....
JUL 10, 2018
Cancer
JUL 10, 2018
New Potential Inhibitor Target for Mantle Cell Lymphoma
A new small molecule inhibitor, called PTC596, initiated apoptosis in MCL cells according to a study published this month in Oncotarget....
JUL 17, 2018
Cancer
JUL 17, 2018
New Small Cell Lung Cancer Subtype Identified
A new subtype of small cell lung cancer is reported to account for potentially 20% of small cell lung cancers diagnosed; it has unique molecular biomarkers and regulatory mechanisms....
AUG 07, 2018
Cancer
AUG 07, 2018
Potential Bcl-2 Targeted Therapy for Relapsed Multiple Myeloma Patients
Targeted therapy for Bcl-2 may be helpful in more than the two lymphoma diagnoses that were recently approved by the FDA....
SEP 15, 2018
Cancer
SEP 15, 2018
Undescended testicles could lead to testicular cancer and infertility in adult males
An undescended testis (cryptorchidism) is a condition in which one of the testes or both have not descended into the right position in the scrotum at birth and either stay at the abdomen or d...
Loading Comments...