Pfizer Animal Health/American Humane Association Study Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy on Kids with Cancer

I am proud to say I was there when the American Humane Association and Pfizer Animal Health decided to combine efforts to study the benefits of animal assisted therapy (AAT) on pediatric cancer patients, and their families.

A wagging tail can inspire children and adults in ways which we are still struggling to better understandFor years, medical professionals have touted the healing power of pets. There’s evidence of this from around the world, but having said that, there’s little data specifically regarding pediatric cancer. And while most expects concur, the presence of dogs is helpful – questions remain. How exactly are there presence a benefit? Under what circumstances? Are dogs more a benefit who are trained to do one thing more than another? Are certain families more or less targeted to benefit? Most of all, how does this mechanism work that dogs are able to reach into the soul of people undergoing treatment?

The research study, “Canines and Childhood Cancer: Examining the Effects of Therapy Dogs with Childhood Cancer Patients and their Families,” is a multi-year effort taking place in hospital settings across the U.S. that will examine the specific medical, behavioral, and mental health benefits AAT may have for children with cancer, and their families. A comprehensive literature review has been completed as a first step, and may be downloaded here.

In addition to the literature review, focus groups and interviews were conducted with hospital staff, family caregivers and animal-assisted therapy handlers, to glean vital information regarding childhood cancer epidemiology and treatment, the well-being of patients and families who are affected by childhood cancer, the applications of AAT for various populations in need, the state of AAT effectiveness research, and the considerations that need to be made when incorporating therapy animals into clinical settings.

Findings from the literature review, focus groups and interviews will help guide the design of the overall study. Preliminary findings showed that no standard protocol for an animal-assisted therapy session (i.e., length, number and type of participants in each session, session activities, or talking points) seemed to exist at any of the research hospital sites; each animal-handler team went about their work somewhat differently. This finding underlines the need for this study to develop consistent animal-assisted therapy treatment fidelity across sites in order to conduct the type of rigorous research needed in the human-animal interaction field.

The information gathered during this initial phase will serve to inform a scientific study design in order to conduct a pilot trial with three to five pediatric oncology sites across the country. Upon the conclusion of the pilot trial, researchers anticipate the launch of a full clinical trial across multiple sites for 12-18 months. During this time, certified therapy dogs and their handlers will conduct regular animal-assisted therapy sessions with pediatric oncology patients and their families, which will be evaluated by a range of biological, psychological and social measures.

“Now we begin the important work of validating and quantifying something that we have observed and felt for years through our own experiences — that interaction with animals can provide beneficial effects for people in need of comfort, encouragement and healing,” said Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D., president and CEO, American Humane Association.

Results from the study will be widely disseminated through professional conferences and peer-reviewed journals in a diverse range of disciplines, including veterinary medicine, pediatric oncology, social work, and animal-assisted therapy.

Flood Relief “Angels” Reach Out to People, Pets in Memphis Area

Of course, there’s no way to count the lives saved by the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services teams since its inception in 1916 to help animals on the battlefield during World War II. Since then, Red Star has responded to disasters across the U.S., from Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 to countless California wildfires and the recent floods along the Mississippi River.

Debbie and Steve Gabbard, who live just outside Memphis, TN, recently discovered out how valuable Red Star could be.

“I’ve never come across people like this,” Debbie said in a phone interview May 13, following devastating floods in the Memphis area. “These wonderful people have given up their lives to help us, and to help our babies with four legs. They’re angels. That’s all there is to it.”

There were warnings that the Mississippi and nearby tributaries would flood, likely exceeding record levels. But the Gabbard’s home had weathered the 1997 flood, and flood prevention had been bolstered since then.

“We’re 10 or 15 miles from Mississippi and not very close really to other rivers,” says Debbie. “We really didn’t think it would happen to us.”

However, when it became clear there could be severe flooding, the Gabbards were out the door with their daughter and two young grandchildren, and as many belongings as they could take. Soon, extended family pitched in to help move as many of Debbie and Steve’s belongings into storage as possible in two days.

“When the water came up, it came up fast,” Debbie recalls. “The rivers were coming up anyway, but for hours the biggest downpour I had seen in a long time was going on. My brother, my husband and our pets were the last ones out — and it’s amazing they made it — only by the grace of God.”

But where do you go with three dogs and two cats?

“They’re my babies,” Debbie says, holding back tears. Those babies include a 7-year-old Pit Bull named Diamond; a 2-year-old Pit Bull called Big Daddy; Chico, a 9-year-old Chihuahua, and two cats, 7-year-old Bella and 16-year-old Dusty.

The Gabbards did find a hotel to house the brood, but the cost was high, the couple was charged an extra deposit for pets, and the location was far from where the Gabbard’s children and grandchildren found refuge.

The American Humane Association, and partners ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), PetSMART Charities, International Fund for Animal Welfare and Animal Rescue League of Boston were assigned to a create an animal shelter out of empty warehouses in Memphis. A friend told Debbie about the emergency facility for animals.

“The minute I walked in, I received a hug,” she says. “I began to talk, and, I believe, mostly cry.” Now in tears, she adds. “I explained, I really need someone to care for the animals while we figure out what to do.”

The reply, “That’s why we’re here.”

“Big Daddy got away from my husband and came flying inside the shelter, like he was saying, ‘I belong here.’ They even have available veterinary care.”

After finding a secure place for their animals, the Gabbards were notified that the storage facility containing their belongings was about to be flooded out. Once again, they were forced to move what they could.

“What would we have done with the animals all that time?” Debbie wonders. “I don’t know. Thank goodness they were being cared for.”

Debrah Schnackenberg, senior vice president-emergency services at the American Humane Association, says that while the Gabbards did lose their home, at least they were able to save their pets.

Due to mandatory evacuations, most people in the affected areas around Memphis made it to safety. However, some pets did not. In some cases, people left when flood waters rose faster than expected, and never made it back to retrieve their pets.

Schnackenberg says rescuers went out by boat to save stranded and sometimes starving pets.

“This work involves great skill,” she says. “We’re talking about traumatized animals rescued from flooded homes, or sometimes getting cats from trees over several feet of water. Some animals do come right to rescuers, but others do not.”

Schnackenberg feels that shelters for animals are best when located adjacent to those for people, so families can stay intact.

“It’s better for children, for sure, and even adults when pets are kept very close so families can see them anytime and help to care for them,” she says. “When the sheltering is co-located, a feeling of community is developed, and people meet one another and help each other.”

Following tornadoes and the recent flooding in the Memphis area, PetSMART Charities has provided (to date) 17 truckloads of supplies for victims. Hundreds of animals have been given safe haven, and in some cases rescuers have saved lives.

“I keep saying, they’re angels who kept my babies safe,” says Debbie. “I will never forget.”

Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can’t answer all of them individually, he’ll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Send e-mail to Include your name, city and state. Steve’s website is; he also hosts the nationally syndicated “Steve Dale’s Pet World” and “The Pet Minute.” He’s also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.