New Study Shows How Therapy Dogs Help Children with Leukemia

A recent study suggests therapy dogs may lower stress among cancer patients and their families. The study notes especially how useful this could be with young patients. Bryce and Mitchell, two children who battled Leukemia share their experiences with the animals. Keep reading or follow the original story here to learn more.

Bryce Greenwell is nine years old. He’s also survived cancer. At his room in the Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee he cannot contain his joy. He asks his mother Jenny if she knew about the surprise that is causing his joy. She smiles and confirms that she did.

Michelle Thompson hands Bryce her trained toy Pomeranian.

“Oh, my gosh, he has missed you guys so much!” she says.

The dog’s name is Swoosh and Michelle assures the boys that Swoosh not only missed them but remembered them. She tell them that he talks to her about the boys constantly.

Bryce isn’t the only child excited to visit with Swoosh. Mitchell Montalbano is also delighted by the surprise. He readily asks what Swoosh has been doing since their last visit. Mitchell is seven. He has recently gone through chemotherapy and come out successfully free of cancer.

In 2014 Bryce and Mitchell were both undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is one of the more common cancers to affect children and is sometimes referred to as ALL. It was during that time that they first met therapy dogs Swoosh and Thompson.

Based on numbers form the National Cancer Institute, Leukemias are the most common cancers to affect children. The Institute estimates that roughly 15,300 children and teens (through age 19) will face a cancer diagnosis of some kind this year. These patients will likely have to undergo a number of invasive and painful procedures. Treatment may necessitate vein punctures, spinal taps, any variety of surgeries, and chemotherapy. This is stressful for anyone, but especially frightening for children.

That’s where Thompson and Swoosh come in. Both dogs were part of a recent study set to examine the positive effects of pet therapy in cancer treatment.

The main areas of interest included pain reduction, and relief of stress and anxiety. Previous studies have proven that animals assist in the reduction of loneliness. They can also help people to relax, show effects on decreasing blood pressure, and can be of help to children with autism. Many hospitals, however, have concerns about allowing animals into oncology wards. They fear infections and similar dangerous circumstances.

“Dogs in general are man’s best friend, and there is a lot of feel-good evidence that they can help with cancer treatment,” says Robin Ganzert.

Ganzert is president and CEO of American Humane, a long-standing company that sponsored the animal study. Ganzert continues that there has previously been no randomized clinical trials concerning therapy animals. As a result, they created one. Not only the first, but also the largest.

Over four months, the study enrolled 106 children. Each child had been recently given a cancer diagnosis. 60 of the children were then paired with a therapy dog. There were 26 dogs, and the study spanned five pediatric hospitals.

Before children were introduced to the dogs they had their blood pressure measured and were asked to answer a series of questions to determine stress levels. The same questions were also given to the patient’s parents. The same tests were repeated after 15 minutes of time with the therapy dog. The control group of 46 children were observed without intervention from a therapy dog. The study also measured signs of stress in the animals, and asked questions of the animal handlers.

Bryce was the first child enrolled in the study. He was five then. Usually Bryce would have to take anti-anxiety medicine before appointments. When he received visits from Swoosh his anxiety would go away without the medication.

When Mitchell began treatment for his cancer, his parents observed that he became quiet, and moody. Normally he had been rather gregarious. Mitchell worried about his own death, and said as much to his parents. After his visits with Swoosh he began to see the brighter side of life again and wasn’t so worried. His parents said he became more like his old self. He was “bubbly and talkative” again.

One substantial result the research revealed was a reduction in parental stress.

This is important because stress of parents often transfer to stress in their children. Both the study and control groups showed reduced stress. Surprisingly the group with the therapy dogs actually showed an increase in blood pressure over the control group. This is suspected to be as a result of children spending time actively playing with the animals as opposed to restful activity such as reading.

No bites, scratches, or infections occurred as a result of animals. Researchers say that this proves highly trained animals are safe to use in hospital settings.

Ganzert views this study as a “game-changer.” She has a dream where therapy dogs could be part of a treatment plan. A dream where a doctor might write “therapy dog intervention” as a prescription. She goes on to say that American Humane plans on presenting this study’s information in congress to try and make a difference.

Bryce meanwhile thinks that everyone should get time with Swoosh. Jenny, Bryce’s mom even wants to become a pet therapist after seeing how the animals helped her son. Mitchell agrees completely with Bryce.

In regards to the therapy dogs he says it would make people feel like they weren’t scared any more. He feels certain they could make people happy.


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