On May 8, researchers, families and country-music star and animal advocate Naomi Judd testified in front of Congress about the benefits that therapy dogs have on kids diagnosed with cancer.
The American Humane Association, with the financial support of Zoetis and the Pfizer Foundation, has launched the first scientific effort to document the positive effects of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) in helping pediatric cancer patients and their families.
“I believe that, to a very large extent, how you treat the whole patient and the family makes a difference,” said Judd, who appeared before Congress in support of the study. “I’ve seen with my own eyes how the power of the human-animal bond can help patients muster the life force they need to overcome anxiety, depression and fear, and begin to heal.”
Each year in the U.S., nearly 13,000 children are newly diagnosed with cancer and more than 40,000 are in treatment at any given time. Three years ago, the American Humane Association began the Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) Study to rigorously measure the well-being effects of AAT for children with cancer, their parents/guardians, and the therapy dogs who visit them.
“AAT is an accessible and affordable adjunctive treatment option that holds promise for populations from all ages and walks of life, including children who often have a natural affinity for animals,” said Dr. Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of American Humane Association in a statement. “The documented benefits of AAT include: relaxation, physical exercise, unconditional support, improved social skills, enhanced self-confidence, and decreased loneliness and depression.”
The study, which is currently in its final stage, includes a comprehensive needs assessment (Stage I), a six-month pilot study (Stage II) and a full clinical trial (Stage III).
“Until now, evidence of the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy has been largely anecdotal: these are powerful stories, but they lack the precise scientific detail that hospitals and physicians require to include them in a medical regimen of care,” says Judd. “That’s where the researchers at American Humane Association come in.”
The full clinical trial is happening in five hospitals nationwide: St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa, Fla.; Randall Children's Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, Oreg; UC Davis Children's Hospital in Sacramento, Calif.; UMass Memorial Children's Medical Center/Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts in Worcester/North Grafton, Mass.; Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.
The groundbreaking study hypothesizes that pediatric cancer patients undergoing a consistent, regular chemotherapy treatment regime will have an improved health-related quality of life throughout the course of their treatment sessions with therapy dogs.
Research will also focus on how ATT affects the health and mental states of animals in therapy programs. So far, data from the study demonstrates that participating dogs do not experience distress when participating in AAT sessions with children.
Judd, who is a Hepatitis C survivor, understands first-hand the impact that animals can have on patients with life-threatening illnesses.
“Several years ago, when my doctors told me that exposure to a contaminated needle during my nursing days had caused me to be infected with Hepatitis C, I was given just 3 years to live,” she says. “I experienced the bone-chilling fear that these little ones must have to deal with every day of their lives. I can tell you that my four-legged companions were more than a constant source of comfort—there were days when they were the only reason I got up in the morning, and they gave me a renewed desire to live.”
The full clinical trial is expected to last for 14 months, with findings being distributed in 2015.
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