Monday, February 19, 2018
Opinion

Column: Studies gauge the healing power of animal therapy (w/video)

Everybody knows that a dog is man's best friend. Now, thanks to a ground-breaking study being undertaken by the American Humane Association and five major children's hospitals around the country, we may soon have scientific evidence that, for kids with cancer, a dog may indeed be a child's best friend at a time when friendship and support matter most.

Of all the roles I've played in my life, one of the most inspiring was at the beginning of my career as a registered nurse, where on nearly every shift my heart was broken at the sight of children whose little bodies and tender spirits were ravaged by disease. I've seen these kids' faces light up when therapy dogs were brought into their lives, and I know how important these animals can be in improving the spirits and overall well-being of patients, family members and caregivers alike.

As a nurse and in my own life as a single mom and hepatitis C survivor, I've come to believe in a broad and open approach to health, one that ministers to the body as well as the mind. I believe that to a very large extent, how you treat the whole patient and the family makes a difference, and I've seen how the power of the human-animal bond can help patients muster the life force they need to overcome anxiety, depression and fear, and begin to heal.

Stories abound of dogs that have helped kids get through a very scary time. In Connecticut, the mother of a 10-year-old boy with cancer says that he often doesn't even want to get out of bed — until his German shepherd wants to go outside and play. In Georgia, a rescue dog is credited with bringing a painfully shy and withdrawn autistic boy "to life."

Until now, though, evidence of the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy has been largely anecdotal: These are powerful stories, but they lack the precise scientific detail that hospitals and physicians require to include them in a medical regimen of care. That's where the researchers at the American Humane Association and doctors at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa come in.

After three years of preparation, the American Humane Association's ground-breaking "Canines and Childhood Cancer" study is now in full-scale clinical trials being conducted at St. Joseph's and four other pediatric cancer facilities across the United States.

The first study of its kind ever undertaken, this landmark effort seeks to provide science-based evidence that children undergoing chemotherapy and their families suffer less stress and anxiety and have an improved quality of life during treatment as a result of animal-assisted therapy. The study will even examine the impact of therapy work on the dogs themselves, a true milestone in animal-assisted therapy research.

As with any form of therapy, it is important that treatment protocols — the proven "best practices" for the administration of care — be developed and followed. Today, procedures differ from handler to handler and from hospital to hospital. One of the goals of the clinical trial being undertaken at St. Joseph's is to identify and recommend animal-assisted therapy standards and procedures that will guide pediatric oncology and animal-assisted therapy practice and research for years to come.

Among the important issues that the St. Joseph's researchers need to keep in mind when incorporating this study into their clinical environments include infection and safety risks or concerns, dog phobias, allergies and, of course, the dogs' need for safety, comfort and rest. Already, researchers tell us that the preliminary results are promising.

Several years ago, when my doctors told me that exposure to a contaminated needle during my nursing days had caused me to be infected with hepatitis C, I was given just three years to live. I experienced the bone-chilling fear that these little ones must have to deal with every day of their lives. I can tell you that my four-legged companions were more than a constant source of comfort; there were days when they were the only reason I got up in the morning, and they gave me a renewed desire to live.

The study under way at St. Joseph's will help researchers, doctors, health care professionals and animal handler volunteers measure and administer this life-enhancing therapy, one that harnesses the power and healing potential of the bonds we share with our animal friends.

The recording artist Naomi Judd is an animal advocate and a former registered nurse. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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