How Therapy Dogs Could Help Kids with Cancer

Therapy dogs may calm children in cancer treatment


Canine companions could make a big difference for kids with cancer.

Preliminary findings from a new study validate the idea that dog therapy may have a positive, calming effect on children undergoing cancer treatment.

While survival rates of children diagnosed with cancer have improved over the last 40 years, ways to improve children's and parents’ psychological state during treatment have been hard to come by, according to a press release about this study.

So far, the authors of this study have looked at 68 children ages 3 to 17 who were recently diagnosed with cancer. The participants are expected to double by 2016. These researchers measured blood pressure, pulse rates and anxiety levels of the children before and after a weekly visit from a therapy dog. During the visit, the children petted the dog, brushed its hair, watched it do tricks and commands and learned about dog breeds.

The children's blood pressure remained more stable in the dog therapy group versus the control group (which didn't spend time with a therapy dog). Also, the children in the control group had more variable heart rates than the dog therapy group.

"These findings suggest that the dog may have a calming effect on the patient,” said lead study author Amy McCullough, PhD, in a press release.

Dr. McCullough is the national director of humane research and therapy for the American Humane Association.

This is the first study to document the psychological benefits of dog therapy programs, Dr. McCullough said.

Dr. McCullough and colleagues also documented the calming effect the therapy dogs appeared to have on the children’s parents. While parents of the control group children reported fluctuating levels of anxiety, parents of kids in the dog therapy group reported a more consistent anxiety level and a slight decline in anxiety at the end of the session.

"This study will be a milestone in understanding of the benefits of the vital bond shared between people and animals,” Dr. McCullough said.

Dr. McCullough said she hopes this research will result in increased access to therapy dogs in medical settings.

This study will be presented Oct. 25 at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition in Washington, DC. Research presented at conferences may not have been peer-reviewed.

The global animal health company Zoetis and the Morris Animal Foundation funded this research. Conflict of interest disclosures were not available at the time of publication.