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Washington Post deftly examines lack of evidence for a fuzzy area of psychiatry: animal therapy


5 Star



Therapy animals are everywhere. Proof that they help is not.

Our Review Summary

The story focuses on the lack of evidence supporting the fundamental concept of “therapy animals” — that interacting with animals can reduce stress or distress in humans.

The story includes input from an array of expert sources and offers a broad (if vague) overview of the research literature regarding therapy animals. There are some shortcomings here — for example, not much was said about the costs of pet therapy.

However, in sum, the story effectively conveys the lack of scientific consensus regarding how effective therapy animals are at reducing stress.


Why This Matters

Tackling the efficacy of therapy animals is a challenging subject, given that the story evaluates an absence of conclusive evidence. However, it’s an important subject. For example, therapy dogs can be expensive, which means a family may spend a great deal of money on a therapy animal — with little idea of whether the animal will provide meaningful benefits for a patient.

Limited resources are available to help patients dealing with mental health issues, and it is important to ensure that those resources are used to achieve the maximum possible benefit. Resources that are being spent on unproven interventions are, obviously, not being used on interventions that have proven clinical benefits. This is the sort of thoughtful reporting we are always happy to see.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Cost is not discussed, but this is an important factor to consider when evaluating any intervention–and especially one that can be expensive. For example, Autism Service Dogs of America (a group that promotes the use of service dogs for patients with autism) estimates that “the full cost to breed, raise and train an ASDA service dog is over $20,000.” Another organization that trains dogs to work with autism patients estimates the cost at $30,000 (though it does not charge the client — the expense is paid through fundraising initiatives). We don’t claim that these are costs that individual patients would necessarily be responsible for, but they do offer some insight into the potential expenses associated with the care, training and upkeep of therapy animals. It’s not negligible, and it’s worth mentioning.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


This is a tricky one, given that the focus of the story is on the dearth of quantifiable benefits associated with therapy animals. So, what do we look for? Well, in this case, we looked for some meaningful, big-picture discussion of benefits. For example, the story notes that the body of evidence regarding therapy animals “sometimes has shown positive short-term effects, often found no effect and occasionally identified higher rates of distress.” Is that quantifiable? No. Does it offer meaningful insight into the nature of benefits found in a wide variety of studies on the subject? Yes. Given the thrust of the story, and the in-depth discussion of benefits (or lack thereof), we think this qualifies for a Satisfactory rating.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


This was a tough call for us: Harms are discussed, but briefly and anecdotally. The brief portion comes in the same quote mentioned above, noting that the body of evidence regarding therapy animals “sometimes has shown positive short-term effects, often found no effect and occasionally identified higher rates of distress” (emphasis added). A little more information there would be welcome. There’s also the issue of immunosuppressed patients coming into contact with therapy animals, and possible harm to the animals, who could be over-worked or subjected to aggressive or harmful treatment from even well-meaning people.

Still, some harms are at least acknowledged.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The story is focused on a field of research, rather than on any specific study. However, the story provides good background on the shortcomings of much of the relevant literature. For example, the story notes: “Most studies had small sample sizes…and an ‘alarming number’ did not control for other possible reasons for a changed stress level, such as interaction with the animal’s human handler.” It also discussed how media headlines often misstate correlation and causation, a problem we’ve discussed many times.

Given the nature of the story, and the scope and complexity of the field being discussed, this earns a Satisfactory rating. We also like that the story includes multiple links to additional material regarding the existing body of research.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease mongering here.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


This was a strong point of the story. It cites multiple sources, clearly identifies the affiliation of all sources, and places those affiliations in a context that readers can understand. For example, the story includes input from a source at the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) — and explains that HABRI is a pet-industry backed organization that funds research on the topic of therapy animals.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

It’s not clear what the direct alternatives would be here, so we’ll rate this as not applicable. However, the story could have talked first-line treatments such as medications and traditional talk therapy. Therapy animals are meant to extend those mainstream treatments, not replace them.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story makes clear that therapy animals are in widespread use, and offers numerous related examples. However, people may wonder how to get one, and whether their insurance would pay.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story talks about prior research and even gives a Freud anecdote about the impact of a pet on psychotherapy, in an attempt to make clear this is not novel.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not appear to be based on a news release.

Total Score: 8 of 9 Satisfactory


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