Tufts examines canine therapy

By Phyllis Hanlon
December 1st, 2014

Three years ago, the American Humane Association launched “Canines and Childhood Cancer: Examining the Effects of Therapy Dogs with Childhood Cancer Patients and their Families,” a multi-year, randomized controlled trial. This year, the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University became the last of five sites to participate in the trial.

In May, Zoetis Inc., a leader in the advancement of animal health and wellness, joined the AHA in sponsoring and coordinating the study.

The study involves a comprehensive needs assessment, six-month pilot study, which ended in April 2013, and a full clinical trial. Findings are scheduled for distribution in 2015.

Deborah Linder, DVM, principal investigator and Megan Kiely Mueller, Ph.D., co-investigator, research assistant professor at the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, Department of Clinical Sciences, have partnered with clinicians at the UMass Medical School for the study.

At this time, Tufts has one enrolled patient “and a legion of dogs,” which are evaluated and registered through the therapy animal group, Pet Partners, according to Mueller. While there are no breed requirements, the dogs must be more than one-year old. “We have a range of dogs in all sizes, from Newfoundland to Shih Tzu,” Mueller notes.

Every entity involved in the study has its own safety standards. Mueller explains that at Tufts both the handlers and animals have to pass a skills evaluation and aptitude test. “The dogs have to be comfortable working in a hospital setting. They can’t be afraid of wheelchairs and medical equipment,” she says. Linder adds that the rigorous testing process serves to ensure that every aspect of the project is executed safely for the patient and the dog.

To be eligible, the patient must require weekly hospitalization for chemotherapy. “The aim is to pair one dog to one child who needs to be inpatient for treatment,” Mueller says. “The dog spends 15 to 20 minutes with the patient prior to or during chemotherapy. Things happen organically. The child may initiate action, but if he is shy, the AHA provides a handout with tips and a list of recommended things to do.”

For instance, the volunteer handler might bring puppy photos to generate conversation or the child might draw pictures of the dog. In other cases, the child might brush or pat the dog, which produces a calming effect.

Linder indicates that the study will measure indices of stress based on the data it collects from parents and their children. “The hypothesis is that animal-assisted therapy is associated with the reduction of stress and improved physical and mental health,” she says.

While outcomes related to the children are a central focus of the study, it will also measure the effects on the dogs. Linder says.

Tufts participates in a number of different projects, but Linder points out that this particular study concentrates on collaborative research. “The great part of the study is the number of different specialists involved, including veterinarians, pediatricians and psychologists focused on human development,” she says. “We are making sure we are not leaving any stone unturned.”

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