Study Looks at the Role of Therapy Dogs

Patient Bobby Harris pets Swoosh at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Swoosh and his owner/volunteer Michelle Thompson are part of a study examining the benefits of pet therapy for young cancer patients. Photo by John Russell.

It’s not uncommon for a child with newly diagnosed cancer to become depressed, lonely and have strained family relationships, but a new Vanderbilt study is investigating whether therapy dogs could have a positive effect on children undergoing chemotherapy.

This first-of-its-kind grant, coordinated by the American Humane Association and funded by animal health company, Zoetis, was recently awarded to Vanderbilt University School of Nursing’s Mary Jo Gilmer, PhD, MBA, RN.

“Many studies have anecdotally documented the benefits of animal-assisted therapy.  We all want to think that pet therapy helps, but we need the evidence to back that up, to see if it is a sound treatment option for patients and their families,” said Gilmer.

Specifically, Principal Investigator Gilmer and Co-Investigators Terrah Foster Akard, from VUSN, and Deb Friedman, MD, director of Hematology and Oncology at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, want to determine if animal-assisted therapy helps reduce anxiety and enhance health-related quality of life in children with newly diagnosed cancer as well as their parents or guardians.  The researchers will evaluate the impact of pet therapy on anxiety and health-related quality of life of these children, as well as levels of distress in the therapy dogs themselves.

“What research does tell us so far is that the physical effects of dealing with cancer may greatly improve over time, but often the psychosocial effects linger,” said Gilmer. “Animal-assisted therapy may have the potential to assist families in coping with the child’s cancer experience.”

This study will take place in five sites across the country.  Training for the dogs and for the animal handlers started in December.  There will be up to 20 children with acute lymphocytic leukemia and lymphoblastic lymphoma participating.  Typically, treatment involves one month of chemotherapy administered in the hospital, followed by weekly chemotherapy visits in the clinic setting.  The therapy dogs will be at each visit.

Gilmer, a palliative care expert, has seen how animals can have an impact on patients.  A few years ago, a teenage patient of hers she calls “Amy” to protect her identity, was declining after her body rejected a second kidney transplant.  Amy wanted her black, toy-sized dog by her side.  Amy’s parents couldn’t make the two-and-a-half-hour drive back home without fearing they would miss crucial moments, but Gilmer had an idea.

“While it wasn’t the same as her own dog, my grown son had dog just like Amy’s.  So I brought his dog, Carli, to the hospital,” said Gilmer.  “Amy was very agitated and restless at that time, but Carli curled up right next to Amy.  The tension from Amy’s face evaporated and she seemed more comfortable.  Two hours later, Amy died with Carli still by her side.  It was that reality—seeing what a difference an animal can make, that has made me want to research this area.”

Gilmer hopes to have preliminary results this summer to help shine more light on the bond shared between people and animals.