August 27, 2013

Pet therapy project serves as crowdfunding guinea pig

In the summer of 2000, Jessica Chubak was a new molecular-biology graduate of Pomona College. With years of camp counselor experience, she sought a meaningful volunteer job. She found a perfect fit in a California hospital program that supports young patients and their families.

“I played with the kids—or more often their siblings in the waiting room,” said Dr. Chubak, now an associate investigator at Group Health Research Institute (GHRI). “And I learned how important distraction and fun are in a stressful medical environment.”

After earning a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Washington (UW), she began working in cancer care, including in GHRI’s successful nurse navigator project, which supports patients through difficult treatment decisions. Working with cancer patients, thinking about the kids she met years ago as a volunteer, and coming home to two comforting cats (Ashley and Brown Cat) inspired her to look into animal-assisted activities for children with cancer. These activities are less structured than animal-assisted therapy, in which animals are formally integrated into treatment, or use of service animals such as guide dogs for the blind. Animal-assisted activities range from providing a fish tank in a waiting room to having volunteers bring therapy dogs, cats, or even llamas to a hospital.

“I talked with pediatric oncology departments across the country,” said Dr. Chubak, “and I realized we need more research. Every place has different rules about pet visits, and no one has extensively studied safety or effectiveness.” As she planned her animal-assisted activity study, GHRI began encouraging investigators to explore new funding sources.

That’s how Dr. Chubak became GHRI’s crowdfunding guinea pig. Her public fundraising campaign—a first for GHRI—closes on Friday, August 30 and has passed its halfway mark. But support is plateauing, so she is asking people to share the campaign’s link.

Crowdfunding is best known for artistic projects like a Zach Braff film that raised millions of dollars through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. But increasingly, scientists are using crowdfunding to get public support for research—from $1,000 to rebuild labs after Hurricane Sandy to $22,000 to study gun policy.

Dr. Chubak’s initial project is modest because so little is known about pet visits for kids with cancer. More than 10 years of studies on animal-assisted activities in general have allayed concerns that bringing pets to hospitals might lead to injuries or impose on clinical staff. Small trials show that pets relieve stress in adults and young patients. But parents and providers worry that children with cancer might be particularly vulnerable to infections, allergies, or other harms from pet visits.

So Dr. Chubak launched an exploratory study and pilot project to collect preliminary data for a larger trial on pet visits for kids with cancer. She will gather young cancer patients, families, and care providers to ask for ideas about animal-assisted activities: from types of animals to logistical barriers in clinics. Based on what patients and providers say in focus groups, surveys, and interviews, she will develop and test a pediatric oncology program for animal-assisted activities.

Although the project is small, it has powerful partners at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Oregon Health & Science University. Dr. Chubak is collaborating closely with local leaders of Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society), a national organization promoting positive human-animal interactions. Diane Rich—dog trainer, blogger, and pet therapy advocate at—is on the project’s advisory board. The team received a two-year grant for about $150,000 from the National Cancer Institute. It was the leanest budget Dr. Chubak and colleagues could develop for bringing study participants together and developing and testing a pilot program. That’s why she chose the UW-based crowdfunding site Microryza to raise $4,000 to expand the study.

“It’s fun to see how excited people get when you tell them about this project,” said Dr. Chubak, whose GHRI collaborators on this project are Rene Hawkes; Clarissa Hsu, PhD; Rebecca Hubbard, PhD; Karen Sherman, PhD, MPH; and Evette Ludman, PhD. “Crowdfunding is challenging and takes time, but it’s connecting me to potential clinical partners and collaborators and study participants, both human and four-legged.”

--by Chris Tachibana