Over the years, therapy dogs have brought joy and comfort to patients, young and old, undergoing treatment for life threatening illnesses. The happy distraction these animals provide can be readily seen in the smiles and laughs they deliver to folks in trying times -- but now new research is aiming to find conclusively that four paws and a wagging tail can truly be the best medicine.
Five pediatric oncology clinics across the country are participating in a new Canines and Childhood Cancer Study, designed to measure what impact therapy dogs have on reducing stress levels in young patients and their families during office visits.
This is the first time researchers have sought to prove that the comforting presence of animals does have an observable influence on patients' physical and emotional well-being.
"It's really this crucial exploration of the child-animal bond and how that is a crucial path to healing," says Robin Ganzert, president of the American Humane Association, which is helping to back the study.
The study will follow the progress of cancer patients between ages 3 and 12 over the course of year, monitoring their blood pressure, heart rate and emotional outlook. Patients' families, and also the therapy dogs themselves, will undergo similar stress assessments.
Once the study is completed, clinical evidence of the animal's beneficial influence on patient health could pave the way for therapy dogs to be used more widely.
For 4-year-old Zoey Vega, a study-participant who is being treated for kidney cancer at UC Davis, having therapy dog Angus to keep her company for office visits brings immeasurable comfort, even if the study has yet to prove it scientifically.
"I like to hug him," she tells news station KCRA. "He always kisses me on the cheek."