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Everyone knows a dog’s unconditional love feels good.

But a new study offers scientific proof that dogs actually improve the emotional well-being of people suffering from cancer -- even as their physical condition worsens.

The study, published by Zoetis, a global animal health company with a plant in Lincoln, followed adult cancer patients receiving radiation and chemo therapies for gastrointestinal, head or neck cancers -- cancers with particularly grueling treatments but generally positive outcomes. Certified therapy dogs met with patients at New York City’s Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital before and after treatment sessions.

“This study is the first such definitive study in cancer, and it highlights the merits of animal-assisted visits using the same scientific standards as we hold for the cancer treatment itself,” said Dr. Stewart Fleishman, principal investigator and founding director of cancer supportive services at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.

“Having an animal-assisted visit significantly improved their quality of life and ‘humanized’ a high-tech treatment,” he said.

Many patients said that had it not been for the therapy dog visits, they would have discontinued their treatments, Fleishman said. Their six-week-long treatment included radiation therapy five days a week and chemotherapy once a week -- which left patients extremely fatigued, frightened and dropping weight. Many had feeding tubes, lots of mucus in the mouth and throat and had temporarily lost their senses of smell and taste, Fleishman noted. But as the side effects of treatment took an ever-increasing toll, those visited by dog therapy teams reported improved quality of life and a good outlook, despite physical and health declines, the study found.

What makes the study even more interesting is that the benefit is stronger when people interact with an animal rather than a friendly human visitor, said Dr. J. Michael McFarland, veterinarian and Zoetis group director of Companion Animal Veterinary Operations.

He credits that, in part, to the unconditional nature of dogs.

“Dogs never judge. They can look at a patient who is feeling worse than they have ever felt in their life, and the dog doesn’t notice. It doesn’t notice if you are pale or feeling worse. And it doesn’t care,” McFarland said.

The dog’s language is a completely different language than human interaction, said Rachel McPherson, founder of The Good Dog Foundation and creator of the widely used training protocol for certifying therapy dogs and their handlers.

McPherson approached the hospital and Pfizer Foundation about conducting the study.

“We wanted scientific results of what we know anecdotally every day,” McPherson said in a telephone interview from her New York home. “I know, volunteers know and (hospital) staff know the benefits companion animals have in helping people who are ill in the hospital or have a major disease.”

The study, published in the Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology, found that visits from therapy dogs and their trainers not only decreased anxiety and stress levels in patients but also increased patient compliance with treatment -- resulting in better outcomes.

Several patients indicated they would have quit had it not been for the dogs, Fleishman said.

Once forbidden from medical and care facilities, animals -- particularly therapy dogs -- have become more common than not in hospital settings.

“Over the last 20 years there has been greater understanding of pets’ roles in physical health,” McFarland said. “They can improve cardiovascular health, mental health, reduce the likelihood of going on antidepressants and reduce obesity. There is a widely growing list of potential improvements and overall well-being if you own a pet.

“We (Zoetis) are interested in why that is and to what extent that can be used in therapeutic settings,” McFarland said.

This study is one of many human-animal bond research initiatives/studies Zoetis has participated in with various pet companies and organizations. Currently it is partnering with the American Humane Association in a long-term study of how therapy dogs benefit children with cancer and help their families re-acclimate to life following cancer treatment, McFarland said.

Dogs are common in classrooms and correction centers and are regularly called in for natural and human-caused disasters, said McPherson, who drafted the therapy-dog certification protocol now used by organizations across the country. Dogs were brought in following the Boston marathon bombing in 2013, 9/11 terrorist attacks, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and in Newtown, Connecticut, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Animal-assisted therapy goes beyond the calming influence of petting an animal, McPherson said.

“Lots of paws are extended, there are nudges and getting very close to the patient,” McPherson said. “This is part of the training, to have the dog be more engaged and interact with the patient.”

The Good Dog Foundation, with nearly 1,000 certified therapy dog/trainer teams, serving 359 facilities on the East Coast, began working at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in 2004.

“The patients loved it, and the staff loved it,” Fleishman said.

The study gives credence to what hospital staff have long believed -- therapy dog visits “are indeed helpful,” Fleishman said.

“It helps people in understanding the benefits animal companions give to their lives,” McPherson said. “For humans, when they hear scientific data, it is a stronger validation.”

For pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals, studies show the potential of prescriptive pet therapies and relationships, McFarland said.

“Aspirationally, I would like to see animal-assisted therapy be routinely prescribed by the the medical community for appropriate situations, and have primary care physicians recommend pets as a way of improving the well-being of individuals and families,” McFarland said.

“Theoretically, if a pet can reduce stress, keep us more fit, lower our blood pressure and make us less likely to be depressed -- it is not a leap of faith to assume it may result in less treatment burdens or medical interventions,” he said.

Now, experts need scientific results to support the theory.

“I see (pet ownership) emerging as a legitimate way of preventing illness and increasing overall well-being,” McFarland said.

“There is little doubt in my mind the relationship we have with pets and how well we take care of them, and how we interact with them, will improve our lives and extend to families, communities and the workplace.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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