The Effects of Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAIs) for Pediatric Oncology Patients, Their Parents, and Therapy Dogs at Five Hospital Sites

Sunday, October 25, 2015
Capitol/Congress (Marriott Marquis)
Amy McCullough, PhD, Molly Jenkins, MSW and Ashleigh Ruehrdanz, MPH, American Humane Association, Washington, DC


Although rates of survivorship have dramatically increased for children with cancer over the past 40 years, the quality of life among patients and their families remains a concern. Innovative, accessible, and evidence-based approaches to psychosocial care for pediatric oncology patients and their families is of great need, both during treatment and end-of-life care. While anecdotal evidence underscores the positive impact of therapy dogs for children with cancer and their families, rigorous studies of efficacy are currently lacking, even as animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) occur daily in today’s pediatric oncology settings. This national, multi-site study is the first of its kind to rigorously measure the psychosocial effects of AAIs for this population. Specifically, researchers are interested in whether or not AAIs have positive effects on patient stress, anxiety and health-related quality of life and on parent stress and anxiety, as well as whether or not therapy dogs experience distress during AAI sessions. 


Prior to, and at certain points throughout, this study, the researchers obtained IRB and IACUC approval from their organization and the 5 participating hospital sites. Patients, aged 3-17 years and recently diagnosed with cancer, and their parents are randomly selected to receive either their standard of care treatment for their diagnosis only or their standard of care plus regular, 15 minute visits from a registered therapy dog and handler in the outpatient clinic or inpatient unit. Both study cohorts participate for 4 months by completing psychosocial and behavioral instruments, such as the State Trait Anxiety and Pediatric Quality of Life Inventories, at designated intervals. Children also have their blood pressure and pulse measured at the beginning and end of each session. Additionally, therapy dogs have their session behavior videotaped and rated via handler self-reports and an AAI behavior ethogram on a weekly basis. Canine salivary cortisol is used to examine the dogs’ stress levels during each AAI session, and is compared to their average baseline cortisol measurement, session behavior, and handler-rated temperament.


Since 2014, 51 patients/families and 31 therapy dog-handler teams have been enrolled across the 5 study sites. Preliminary patient, parent, and therapy dog findings will be presented, as well as lessons regarding successfully implementing AAIs in pediatric oncology settings. Data collection for this study will continue through late 2015.


Anticipated findings from this groundbreaking research will increase access to therapy dogs in hospital environments, inform AAI best practices and standards in the context of serious pediatric illness and, most importantly, improve well-being outcomes for children and families facing the considerable challenges of childhood cancer.