Your dog undoubtedly adds value to your life. When you’re sad, he’s there to comfort you and dry your tears. He greets you at the door every day with the same enthusiasm as he did yesterday and he never fails to show you unconditional love and maintain your trust.
For Vanessa Mariani, Director Academic & Professional Affairs, Pfizer Animal Health U.S, the human/animal bond had an immediate impact on saving her mother’s life following a house fire.
“What I have learned throughout my life from my dogs and cats came from a very personal experience where my mom almost died in a house fire,” Vanessa recalled. “If it had not been for the stubbornness of those pets to get into her room even when the doctors wouldn’t let them, my mom would have died. It was our dog’s presence that brought her back to life.”
Anecdotal evidence like Vanessa’s abounds and shows us the positive benefits dogs bring into our lives—lessened depression, a sense of calm and purpose, motivation to better ourselves to lead healthier lives—yet no literature to date has utilized the scientific method to prove whether this evidence is based upon fact or fiction.
All of that is about to change.
Pfizer Animal Health, in conjunction with the American Humane Association (AHA) has just completed the first of three stages in their groundbreaking study entitled Canines and Childhood Cancer: Examining the Effects of Therapy Dogs With Childhood Cancer Patients and Their Families. Their research will analyze the sociological, physiological and psychological affects of therapy dogs on pediatric cancer patients.
Dr. Michael J. McFarland, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, Group Director, Veterinary Medical Services at Pfizer Animal Health explained the inspiration behind the study was a philosophical conversation with Dr. Robin Ganzert, CEO and President of the American Humane Association.
“We had a strong desire to develop a truly ground-breaking study with AHA that had enough scientific rigor, enough patients involved with it, that we could establish once and for all that there is a real live measurable benefit to patients when animals are used in the appropriate way in an appropriate environment,” stated Dr. McFarland.
In the initial phases of their study Pfizer and AHA conducted a comprehensive literary review of all current anecdotal evidence available to the public pertaining to the positive benefits of therapy dogs to pediatric cancer patients.
According to Dr. Christine Jenkins, Group Director of U.S. Veterinary Medical Services, the second phase of the study will be a pilot program through which they hope to determine the parameters as well as the tools and the methodology that will be important, as Dr. Jenkins said, in ensuring the success of the larger-scale study (which will take place next year over a series of 24 to 36 months).
“By planning and looking at what is in the public domain currently and initiating a well-controlled randomized pilot study (followed with a full-scale study) we hope that we will be able to show and demonstrate the benefits of animal-assisted therapy on human health, particularly children who are undergoing cancer treatment,” Dr. Jenkins explained.
Although the study has been largely successful in its initial phase, there are many questions which continue to remain unanswered going into the second phase of the study. For one, is it possible to use psychological and sociological-based evidence in a study trying to provide answers for physiological reactions?
“Most of the scientific community realizes it’s sometimes very, very difficult to separate psychological benefit from physical benefit, that the two frequently go hand in hand,” Dr. McFarland reasoned.
Dr. McFarland said the study also raises additional questions such as, “What is the benefit of animal-assisted therapy to the health-care worker? To the family of the child?” and “What benefit might there be to that child, after they’ve successfully negotiated that treatment, to re-integrate themselves into their classroom or other environments if they have an animal there to help them through that process?”
Whether or not we’re able to separate the two phenomenons remain unanswered as of yet, however, what is certain is that society is moving forward and embracing animal-assisted therapy as an integral part of our health and well-being.
“The human/animal interface is more and more accepted as essential to public health,” stated Vanessa. “Veterinarians are key educators on the importance of prevention, wellness and sustained care. If they can work with other medical professionals, no matter the species they care for, then we’re making pivotal strides toward improving health-care overall. We like to think of this as healthy pets equal healthy families.”
According to Dr. McFarland increased focus on the impact of the human/animal interface on our health will also translate into increased credibility for the veterinarian. “With growing scientific evidence for the power of the human/animal bond and its impact on human health, how much more relevant now does the veterinarian become in this whole equation?” Dr. McFarland questioned. “We’re not talking about just the companion in a family, but a ‘life-support system with four legs and fur,’ as Marty Becker used to say. We want people to realize how important it is to engage their veterinarian on a regular basis to maintain the health of their pets because it is important to their family as a whole, not just their pet.”
As Pfizer and AHA continue their research on pediatric cancer patients, a collaborative study between the Good Dog Foundation and the Continuum Cancer Centers of New York (located in Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals and The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary) is currently being conducted. The study is funded by Pfizer’s Global Research Grant and is expected to yield measurable results regarding the affects of therapy dogs on adult cancer patients at the end of this year. The adult and pediatric studies are just one part of a broader picture Pfizer will continue to explore.
“I think it’s a safe bet that this project is something that will lead to a series of studies, period,” affirmed Dr. McFarland. “We can apply the same basic principles of our study to other areas of health-care where there is clear, early evidence of an animal-related benefit, but as of yet there has not been that effort to develop a truly robust clinical study that would withstand the scrutiny of the scientific community.”
According to Dr. McFarland the implications of this study are in-numerable and will continue to develop for years to come. “The power of human/animal interaction is just now beginning to emerge and be understood— we’re just scratching the surface of our understanding of what interacting with animals does for the health of the human-being,” stated Dr. McFarland. “It’s vitally important, I think, as good citizens and as a leading business in the animal health industry that we have a much better understanding of that power then we currently do and help people understand how to harness that.”
Written By Christine White