Can Pets Help Keep You Healthy? Exploring the Human-Animal Bond
You take good care of your pet. But what’s your pet done for you lately? A small but growing body of research suggests that owning or interacting with animals may have the added benefit of improving your health.
People and animals have a long history of living together and bonding. Perhaps the oldest evidence of this special relationship was discovered a few years ago in Israel—a 12,000-year-old human skeleton buried with its hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup. “The bond between animals and humans is part of our evolution, and it’s very powerful,” says Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
“When you see how long we’ve had pets in our lives, and how important they are to us today, I think it’s amazing that the study of human-animal interactions is still so new,” says Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Researchers have only recently begun to explore this wonderful relationship and what its health benefits might be.”
It’s true that scientific study of the human-animal bond is still in its infancy. Several small or anecdotal studies have uncovered intriguing connections between human health and animal interactions. However, more rigorous follow-up studies have often shown mixed results.
This past year, NIH hosted several meetings to bring together leading experts in the field of human-animal interactions. The investigators discussed findings to date and ways to improve ongoing research.
Several research teams are examining the potential benefits of bringing specially trained animals into clinical settings. These animal-assisted therapies are increasingly offered in hospitals and
nursing homes nationwide. Although there is little solid scientific evidence confirming the value of this type of therapy, clinicians who watch patients interacting with animals say they can clearly see benefits, including improved mood and reduced anxiety.
Drs. Berger and Barker recently wrapped up a preliminary clinical study looking at how well animal-assisted therapy relieves distress in hospitalized cancer patients coping with pain. The data have not yet been analyzed, but the researchers hope it will serve as a launching point for future investigations.
“For cancer patients, a pet can reduce the feeling of isolation and loneliness,” says Paula F. Weisenberger, MD, oncologist-hematology with OHC. “And patients can interact with a pet with no fear of judgment and no need to talk. They can just to be on the receiving end of unconditional love and affection. For some patients, it’s a distraction from their illness, treatment and side effects.”
Some cancer survivors may need help after their treatment. A service dog can provide companionship as well as assist in walking, carrying things and picking up dropped items. It’s a great service but may not be for everyone.
“Some cancer patients’ immune systems may be too compromised to have a pet,” adds Dr. Weisenberger. “The best thing to do is talk with your doctor and he or she can help determine if you’re well enough to have a service dog or be around pets in general.”
“I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know about the human-animal bond and its potential health benefits,” Dr. Barker says. “This area is primed for a lot of research that still needs to be done.”
Cover photo: Lead Medical Assistant Pam Johnson of the OHC Blue Ash office with her dog Cody.