Therapy Dogs Really Do Help Cancer Patients

By Kiona Smith-Strickland on at

Therapy dogs may actually make a difference in the health of the patients they visit by reducing anxiety and leading to more stable blood pressure.

Dogs usually aren’t allowed in hospitals, but therapy dogs are there for a purpose. The idea is that the simple act of petting a friendly dog can reduce stress and make patients’ lives a little better. Heartwarming tales abound, but until recently, few researchers had looked for hard scientific data on whether therapy dogs actually made a difference.

Researchers at the American Humane Association, led by National Director of Humane Research and Therapy Amy McCullough, are in the middle of an ongoing study on how therapy dogs visits affect kids in cancer treatment. They say that their early results show that therapy dogs actually do reduce stress and even have a stabilising effect on patients’ blood pressure and heart rate.

McCullough and her team studied the effects of short, weekly visits from therapy dogs on kids who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. 51 kids and their parents at 5 hospitals around the U.S. participated in the study, along with 31 therapy dogs and their and their handlers. Kids who got weekly dog visits had more stable blood pressure and heart rate than those who didn’t get to spend time with a dog, according to early results presented today at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition.

Based on anxiety and quality of life surveys, therapy dog sessions helped with anxiety, too. Parents of kids in the control group, who didn’t get dog visits, said that their anxiety levels fluctuated wildly during treatment, but parents of kids who had therapy dog sessions reported more stable levels of anxiety, and even a slight decrease in anxiety by the end of the four months.

McCullough and her colleagues are also interested in the dogs’ perspective. They’re recording the therapy sessions so that handlers can review the videos and rate their dogs’ temperament and stress levels, and they’re measuring the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol in the dogs’ saliva before and after every session. The goal is to learn whether, or when, the dogs are stressed, and use that information to help improve training for dogs and their handlers.

Top image: AP Images