Kids’ Cancer Goes to the Dogs

Big boost from these friendly, four-legged 'therapists'

The four-legged visitor strolls confidently down the corridor of cubicles partitioned by hospital curtains.

With a calm demeanor and wearing a blue collar, a bright yellow bandana and a canine smile, the yellow Labrador retriever is looking to make friends.

There’s no shortage of them on the oncology ward.

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Paddy is one of a dozen registered therapy dogs that regularly visit young patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital. As part of the Animal Assisted Therapy program, Paddy and his handler Christi Dudzik make the rounds once a week, spending time with children in sick wards and rehabilitation units.

“It surprised us, seeing a dog come in when she was getting her chemo,” Mike McIntyre, 46, of Renton, Washington, told LifeZette.

His 16-year-old daughter is being treated for brain cancer. “It instantly brought a smile to her face. She doesn’t smile very much when she has the needle in her arm.”

Related: When a Child Has Cancer

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With big brown eyes expressing friendliness toward his new friend, Paddy allows the girl to pet him and brush his fur. He offers only a gentle lick with the tip of his tongue when he senses the moment is right.

“She doesn’t smile very much when she has the needle in her arm.”

“Our animals can touch people in ways we can’t touch each other,” said Dudzik, who operates Healing Paws, a therapeutic animal provider in Woodinville, Washington.

There’s not much argument there. The impact of therapy dogs is as plain as the smile on a child’s face. Now, researchers are trying to establish scientific evidence that measures the health benefits of patient interaction with animals.

“There are therapy dogs visiting a lot of hospitals around the country. However, there aren’t a lot of rigorous findings about how these animals may be impacting people’s health,” Amy McCullough of the Washington, D.C.-based American Humane Association told LifeZette.

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The bond between human and animal pre-dates the dawn of civilization, McCullough notes. Cave drawings depict the earliest humans with animals. That extends to ancient Egyptians who entombed pets with their masters for the journey to afterlife.

But the lack of empirical evidence of the health benefits in modern times could be impeding the use of animal therapy.

“When you bring live animals into a hospital, you are undertaking certain risks in terms of infection control and other safety issues,” McCullough said. “It’s important the benefits of interaction with these animals outweigh the risks.”

Related: Skip the Chemo?

To prove it, McCullough and her research team are examining cancer patients from age 3 to 17 at five major pediatric hospitals across the country. The group expects to gather data on a sample size of more than 100 subjects by its conclusion next year.

Early indications are that the interaction with therapy dogs has a measurable calming effect on children undergoing cancer treatment and eases the anxieties of family members.

Subjects are followed for four months as regular animal visits occur during the stressful treatment sessions involving blood work and chemotherapy.

Related: Calming Canines Help Kids

Data on patients’ blood pressure, pulse rate and anxiety levels are taken before and after the visit with a therapy dog and compared to the same readings in subjects from a control group. Parents and other family members also fill out a survey to indicate their own stress levels when their child is undergoing treatment.

“We know how difficult the experience of cancer is — many lives have been affected by it,” McCullough said, adding that the data shows heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety levels all appear lower in the test subjects. Conclusions from the study are expected in early 2017.

“The credibility for funding (comes from) being able to prove through research that these animals are actually helping,” McCullough said. “We’re hoping this study helps increase access and points out that the benefits of interaction with therapy dogs outweigh the risks.”

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