News 9 MD: Study shows pet therapy may help childhood cancer patients

Published: Aug. 7, 2014 at 10:46 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 8, 2014 at 10:49 AM EDT
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(WTVM) - More than 13,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year, and many of them have to endure painful treatments that trigger stress, anxiety and depression.

Researchers are studying a drug-free, inexpensive way to help them feel better.

Bryce Greenwell is no stranger to tests or hospitals. He has Leukemia, and will undergo treatments for the next three years or more.

"I don't know how he does it, you know, he's…he's amazing," says Bryce's mom Jenny Greenwell.

But a little puppy named Swoosh is making Bryce's hospital visits much more bearable.

"It gives us something to talk about," Jenny says. "He gets excited to come see Swoosh."

Bryce and Swoosh are participating in a study to determine if dogs can help pediatric cancer patients.

"We know that the disease takes a terrible emotional toll on families," says Mary Jo Gilmer with the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Studies in adult patients have shown interaction with man's best friend can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and improve lung function. This is the first pilot study to test animal therapy in kids with cancer.

"It's very obvious to me, just anecdotally, that the dogs are making a difference, that interaction is making a difference," says Gilmer.

The dogs spend about 15 minutes with patients before treatments. The kids have their pulse and blood pressure checked before and after, and are given a questionnaire.

Bryce says he feels very relaxed.

The dogs even have their saliva checked to determine if they experience stress, but Swoosh's owner, Michelle Thompson, says she doesn't think that's the case.

"He loves to work," Thompson says. "He loves to get his vest on, and he's excited to go."

Researchers at five sites across the country will enroll a total of 120 families for this study. They are still collecting data and cannot report on results, but they've noticed children who interact with the dogs require less anti-anxiety meds than they did before the pet therapy.

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