How Therapy Dogs Are Helping to Reduce Anxiety in Kids with Cancer — and Their Parents

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Children facing cancer battles are true heroes in my book. They bravely face earth-shattering diagnoses, invasive tests, and treatments that can often leave them feeling depleted and unwell. These children and their families deserve all the loving support that we can give them. After all, entering cancer treatment can be a terrifying experience for all involved.

There are many awesome supportive therapies out there for kids battling cancer, but there is one truly remarkable therapy that has the potential to do a world of good — and when you learn more about it, I can guarantee that you will feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Here’s the scoop: According to a new study, therapy dogs (i.e., trained fur-creatures to snuggle and interact with) can really improve the lives of young cancer patients and their families.

The study, published last month in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, is the first randomized clinical trial to look at the effects of therapy dog on kids with cancer. Sponsored by American Humane, and funded by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute and Zoetis, an animal health company, the study focused on 106 young patients who were newly diagnosed with cancer.

Over the course of four months, researchers studied what effect the introduction of therapy dogs had on the lives of selected participants. Participants were drawn from five major pediatric hospitals across the country, and the researchers spent time with each child, and observing what roles the dogs had in their lives. They even studied the effects of the therapy on the dogs themselves!

“Dogs in general are man’s best friend, and there is a lot of feel-good evidence that they can help with cancer treatment,” Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of American Humane, told CNN. “But there’s not been a randomized clinical trial. So we created the first and the largest clinical trial that’s ever been done to show the benefits of animal assisted interaction on kids with cancer.”

As the kids underwent treatment, 60 of them were paired with trained therapy dogs, while a control group of 46 children underwent treatment without a therapy dog (but with other usual supportive therapies). The researchers found that both groups had detectable reductions in anxiety — but most significantly, parents of the children who were paired with therapy dogs saw a significant reduction in stress and anxiety, as opposed to the parents in the control group.

“In the group that had the intervention with the therapy dogs, we found parents showed decreased stress in their parenting role over time,” Mary Jo Gilmer, Vanderbilt University Professor of Nursing, and one of the study’s leaders, explained to CNN. “That was striking to us, because stress that parents feel usually is reflected onto the children. If Mom is stressed and Dad is stressed, a child usually feels it.”

The highest recommendations came from the children themselves, who were clearly uplifted by the “creature comforts” their therapy dogs brought them.
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Another significant piece of data that emerged from the study is the safety of allowing therapy dogs in hospital environments — something that had never been assessed before. Amy McCullough, American Humane’s director of research, explained to CNN that despite some misgivings from hospital staff members, there were no safety issues that arose during the study trials, and that this should encourage hospitals all over to adopt therapy dogs for their patients.

“There was not a bite, a scratch, or infection contracted from any of the study’s therapy dogs,” McCullough remarked. “That shows us that highly trained volunteer dogs can be safely used.”

But perhaps the highest recommendations came from the children themselves, who were clearly uplifted by the “creature comforts” their therapy dogs brought them as they underwent difficult and frightening treatments. Several of these children and their families shared their experiences with CNN.

5-year-old Bryce Greenwell’s therapy dog “Swoosh” gave him lots of joy and a significant amount of stress-reduction as the young boy underwent chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“It gave us something to talk about, to take his focus off what was really happening,” said Dustin, Bryce’s dad. “It wasn’t all about the needles and pokes and prods. For Bryce, Swoosh was something to look forward to … He could hang out with Swoosh for a little bit.”

Not only that, but Swoosh’s presence in Bryce’s life actually made him able to handle his anxiety about chemotherapy that much better, and even enabled him to skip his anxiety medication at times.

“Bryce would have to take an anti-anxiety medication prior to many clinic appointments to ease his anxiety,” Jenny, his mother, explained. “But when he saw Swoosh, his anxiety level went down without the use of medicine. It was a little light into the nightmare that we were living.”

Children who are facing the most difficult medical diagnoses deserve the best, most loving support out there.
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For 11-year-old Joshua, who spoke with Babble last year before he sadly passed away from DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma), his rescue dog, Bean, was a lifeline as the young boy battled his awful cancer. Toward the end of his life, when Joshua had lost his ability to speak and was confined to a wheelchair, his dog brought him the kind of companionship and love that was just what the doctor ordered.

“Well, Bean is a calm dog and is willing to lay with me to lighten up my mood in any state,” Joshua told Babble at the time. “Also, since I can’t talk right now, I can get out my anxiety by pretending to talk my problems to Bean. Bean is also willing to be my little walking doll and, so this is lighting my day a ton!”

The researchers from American Humane hope that what this latest study can offer is an opportunity for more doctors and providers to learn about the incredible benefits of therapy dogs for their youngest cancer patients — and for this to become an option for as many children as possible.

“I have a dream about a child going into a medical office and on the prescription pad, the doctor can write ‘therapy dog intervention.’ Would that be cool?” American Human’s Robin Ganzert tells CNN. “And not just for kids with cancer but for kids facing emotional abuse, for kids facing all sorts of illnesses.”

What a fantastic idea that is — and something I think we can all get behind. Let’s hope that this idea becomes a reality all over. Children who are facing the most difficult medical diagnoses deserve the best, most loving support out there. And who better to deliver it than a furry little friend who wants nothing more than to snuggle up and cover you with wet kisses?

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