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Can Dogs Help Children with Cancer?

14 May 2014

ANALYSIS - Each year in the US, nearly 13,000 children are diagnosed with cancer and more than 40,000 are in treatment at any given time. A new scientific study is seeking to prove that a dog can be a child's best friend in times of greatest need, writes Gemma Hyland.

Last week the American Humane Association, scientists, researchers, four therapy dog teams, and country star, former nurse and animal lover Naomi Judd held a congressional briefing to discuss a groundbreaking study by American Humane Association that is the first scientific effort to document the beneficial effects of animal-assisted therapy in helping children with cancer and their families.

Billions of dollars are rightly being spent to pursue new treatment advancements for children with cancer, and while survival has fortunately increased over the past two decades, quality of life for these patients and their families remains a concern.

One promising, and underutilised weapon in the war on childhood cancer has been acknowledged anecdotally, but never before been rigorously evaluated in the context of pediatric oncology – the use of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as a complementary treatment option for children and families.

AAT is an accessible and affordable alternative treatment option that holds promise for populations from all ages and walks of life, including children who often have a natural affinity for animals.

The documented benefits of AAT include: relaxation, physical exercise, unconditional support, improved social skills, enhanced self-confidence, and decreased loneliness and depression.

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 recognised 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.

Three years ago, 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.

The CCC Study is sponsored through a grant from Zoetis with matching funds from the Pfizer Foundation.

Additional funds were received through a grant from the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation.

Gemma Hyland, Editor

Gemma Hyland, Editor

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