While many people, including health professionals, believe in the power of animals to help us heal, advocates of that belief are now trying to give it some scientific backing with a study that’s examining the benefits of therapy dogs on children with cancer.
According to the American Humane Association, each year in the U.S. almost 13,000 children are newly diagnosed with cancer and more than 40,000 are in treatment at any given time. While billions are spent on improving treatments and trying to improve quality of life we’ve been overlooking a powerful weapon to help fight the war on childhood cancer: the unconditional love of a dog.
AHA is launching what’s believed to be the first clinical trial that will study the physical and psychological effects of animal assisted therapy (AAT) on children, their families and the participating dogs themselves to make sure they’re enjoying what they do.
Thoughts from parents who commented on the endeavor to NBC News ranged from excitement to surprise that a study would even be needed to prove something we already know.
According to the AHA, while we might know deep down that our bond with animals can help us in many different ways, the evidence surrounding the effectiveness of AAT in pediatric oncology is limited. While many support the use of therapy animals, there is a lack of scientific research in this area. According to the organization:
While studies have suggested the benefits of AAT, the majority of these findings have largely been anecdotal and have lacked scientific rigor, thus hindering the ability of AAT to be recognized by those in the research, funding and healthcare fields as a sound treatment option. Additional key research gaps – such as the impact of AAT on therapy animals – also exist, which render AAT best practices incomplete.
The AHA and supporters believe solid data is needed to help promote this type of therapy in treatment programs to help both sick children and families who are dealing with the weight of a serious disease.
“I think [AAT] plays a huge role. If they’re happy and they have a good outlook, they’re much more likely to tolerate their medicines,” said Dr. ZoAnn Dreyer, a pediatric cancer expert at Texas Children’s Hospital. “A clinical trial that will no doubt be beneficial to the kids gives a lot more credence for hospitals around the country to use it.”
The Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) Study began with a a six-month pilot study and has since been expanded to full 12-month clinical trial that’s being conducted at five children’s hospitals where researchers will follow 100 children, between the ages of 3 and 12, who have had a recent cancer diagnosis. Half of the children will get regular visits from dogs and the other half will get standard treatment.
Amy McCullough, AHA’s national director of humane research and therapy, told NBC the study will track blood pressure, heart rate and psychological responses in the kids, their families and the caregivers, in addition to tracking stress levels in dogs before and after visits by measuring cortisol in their saliva.
The results are expected in the next 12-15 months and if all goes as expected, it could give the belief that animals help us heal some serious credibility, which will in turn help expand AAT programs.
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