Bringing Rover into the children's hospital is guaranteed to make little Sally smile. But there's no firm evidence that it's going to help her beat leukemia, or suppress her chronic asthma.
In animal-assisted interventions, trained pets, mostly dogs, are brought in to give sick kids the pleasure of a brief encounter with a furry companion. The practice is sometimes called pet therapy, or an animal-assisted activity, and it comes with obvious risks: Animals can trigger allergies and spread zoonotic diseases to vulnerable children. But the practice remains popular, particularly in the United States, Australia, and Canada. Perhaps that's because it's so difficult, and so obviously important, to bring a smile to a sick kid's face.
Recently, researchers from the Australian city of Adelaide set out to determine whether any health benefits had actually been demonstrated from animal-assisted interventions. So they scoured the scientific literature. What they found was—basically nothing. Just nine scientific papers dealing with the therapeutic benefits of animals working with hospitalized children could be found, and all of those studied were judged to have been marred by methodological flaws.
"There is a perception in the scientific and general communities that hospitalized children benefit from visits by animals. However, the actual prevalence of AAI in children's hospitals has been poorly documented in the literature."
"We were surprised at the paucity of the research," says Anna Chur-Hansen, a University of Adelaide professor involved with the literature review, which was published recently in the journal Anthrozoos.
It's not easy to test the benefits of animal interventions using randomized controlled trials. There's no placebo available when prescribing a visit from a dog—a kid is going to know whether there's a mutt wagging its tail in front of him or not. So scientists need to find other ways of assessing whether it's a good idea or a bad idea to bring the lovable creature into a sterile environment. Unfortunately, not only is there a shortage of such research, it's not even clear how widespread the practice is.
"There is a perception in the scientific and general communities that hospitalized children benefit from visits by animals," the researchers write in their paper. "However, the actual prevalence of AAI in children's hospitals has been poorly documented in the literature. Furthermore, the evidence base for claims that children in hospital benefit from AAI is limited."
Chur-Hansen didn't set out to condemn animal therapy. She says it comes with many potential benefits. "Perhaps even five minutes of pleasure or distraction from pain is sufficient to say that the interaction with the animal is beneficial," she says. "But there would be arguments from some that animals should not be in hospitals. Most infection controllers in tertiary hospitals would probably be unhappy with a trade-off for zoonotic disease."
And unless research is undertaken to try to quantify these benefits, we're just gambling with young lives, potentially trading delightful giggles for bacteria-fueled death knells.
"We really do need to be able to demonstrate the costs and benefits," Chur-Hansen says. "If the benefits are demonstrably greater than costs, and if the welfare of the animals is not compromised, then we can advocate for animals in hospitals, with evidence to back us up."