Study shows that dogs relieve stress in children suffering from cancer

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SOUTH BEND, Ind.--- More than 13,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer each year.

Many undergo painful treatments that trigger stress, anxiety and depression.

Now, researchers are looking at a drug-free and inexpensive way to help kids feel better, and man's best friend is at the center of their study.

Bryce Greenwell is no stranger to tests or hospitals.

He has leukemia and will undergo treatments for the next three years or more.

"I don't know how he does it, you know, he's amazing," said Jenny Greenwell, Bryce’s mom.

A little pup named Swoosh; however, is making Bryce's hospital visits much more bearable.

"It gives us something to talk about. He gets excited to come see swoosh," said Jenny.

Bryce and Swoosh are participating in a study to determine if dogs can help pediatric cancer patients.

"We know that the disease takes a terrible emotional toll on families," said Dr. Mary Jo Gilmer, Director of Palliative Care Research at Vanderbilt University’s School of Nursing.

Studies in adult patients have shown interaction with man's best friend can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and improve lung function.

"It's very obvious to me, just anecdotally, that the dogs are making a difference, that interaction is making a difference," said Dr. Gilmer.

The dogs spend about 15 minutes with patients before treatments.

The kids have their pulse and blood pressure checked before and after, and they also fill out a questionnaire.

The dogs even have their saliva checked to determine if they experience stress, but Swoosh's owner Michelle says she doesn't think that's the case.

"He loves to work,” said Michelle. “He loves to get his vest on, and he's excited to go."

A total of 120 families are currently enrolled in this study, and they come from five areas across the country.

Researchers can't report on results right now, since the study isn't over, but they have noticed kids in the program need less anti-anxiety medcations than before.

Pet therapy is mostly conducted in medical settings; however, it also helps college students, as was the case this past spring at Goshen College.

We were there this past April, as faculty and staff brought their pets to campus, in order to help students cope with the stress of finals.


TOPIC: Pet Therapy
REPORT: #3809

BACKGROUND: Animal-assisted therapy or pet therapy is a treatment that uses trained dogs or other trained animals to boost recovery and comfort a patient dealing with health disorders such as heart disease and cancer. The interaction with the pet always includes the pet's handler and is believed to boost happiness and optimism for the patient. Pet therapy is mostly conducted in medical settings, but is also being tested in public universities and the community to help individuals cope with stress and anxiety. (Source:

EFFECTS: Some positive effects that pet therapy has had on patients include:
* Improved self esteem
* Increase in verbal communication
* Increase in willingness to join in activities
* Motivate willingness to exercise

NEW TECHNOLOGY: A study at Vanderbilt is investigating if therapy dogs can have a positive impact on children with cancer. Pet therapy is believed to help these children develop a more relaxed, optimistic mind set while they undergo chemotherapy. The Vanderbilt researchers will examine what effects the pet therapy plays on the anxiety of the children as well as the distress level of the therapy dogs being used. The study takes place in 5 locations across the US and will study up to 20 children suffering from acute lymphocytic leukemia and lymphoblastic lymphoma. Treatment will include one month of chemotherapy at the hospital and weekly chemotherapy sessions afterward where the therapy dogs will make their visits with the children. (Source: Kathy Rivers)

Ashleigh Ruehrdanz, MPH
Research and Evaluation Specialist & IRB Administrator
Humane Research and Policy
American Humane Association
Phone: (303) 630-9480