Veterinary School Research Reveals Psychological, Physiological Benefits of Human-Animal Interaction

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At veterinary schools across the country, researchers are working to uncover the science behind what so many animal lovers and pet owners already know: Animals are good for our health. 

Alan Beck

While animals have been proven to have positive effects on humans’ health and emotional well-being, advanced scientific inquiry into this field had been relatively minimal until recent years, says Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond (CHAB) at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.

[Above: Toby, a dog from the Tufts University Paws for People animal therapy program, visits with students at Harvard University during a campus stress-relief event]

CHAB is one of an increasing number of veterinary centers devoted to the study of human and animal relationships and animal-assisted therapies. Facilities such as this allow researchers from a variety of disciplines and academic departments to collaborate on studies related to the physiological and psychological effects of the human-animal bond.

Megan Mueller

Research interest in the field has grown exponentially over the last decade, especially as the use of animal-assisted therapies in schools, nursing homes, and other facilities has become more common, says Megan Mueller, PhD, associate director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI) in the Cummings School for Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “There’s more recognition these days of the really important role that our pets and other animals play in our lives,” she says. “We have a desire to understand why those relationships are so important and why things like animal-assisted therapy work so well.”

Much of the research being done regarding human-animal relationships concerns how animals can be used to facilitate and improve the lives of children and adults living with physical disabilities or psychological disorders. Both CHAB and TIHAI, for example, have studied how animals such as rats, rabbits, and lizards can improve educational outcomes for children with autism-spectrum disorder (ATSD) or learning disabilities. In each of these areas, animals have proven to be highly effective in facilitating traditional therapies by motivating and comforting the children.

Students at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy take a break with Jett, another Paws for People dog, during finals week.

“Animals are so important to young people,” says Beck, who notes that CHAB has also done significant research on the ability of classroom pets to reduce the stigma associated with ATSD. “Children love animals, so having them do activities together really breaks down the barriers that exist between a typical developing child and one with ATSD.”

Similarly, researchers at both CHAB and TIHAI have used animals such as rabbits and horses to facilitate occupational and physical therapy for children living with mental and physical disabilities. CHAB used to manage an equine therapy program that allowed children with cerebral palsy and spina bifida to complete physical therapy exercises using horses. The horses were also used to provide mental and emotional support for children and adults suffering from stress-induced trauma, such as veterans living with PTSD. While such programs are meant to facilitate, not replace, traditional forms of therapy, Beck says they are often remarkably effective in making patients calm, comfortable, and motivated.

Like many of the individuals who work in human-animal research, neither Beck nor Mueller have a [traditional] background in veterinary medicine. Before coming to CHAB in 1990, Beck studied epidemiology and the role of animals in public health. Other researchers who work with CHAB come from disciplines as varied as anthropology, healthcare, and psychology, he says. This plethora of disciplines is noted in the sheer variety of studies conducted at CHAB, which have included exploring the ways that animals can improve the educational and social experiences of children with autism, using robot dogs as substitute companion animals for the elderly, and improving habitats for captive zoo animals as a means of strengthening the human-animal bond, according to Beck.

A participant in a CHAB study interacts with her “pet” — a Sony AIBO robot given to her by researchers.

One well-known CHAB study — conducted by Beck and his colleague Nancy Edwards, PhD, along with students from Purdue’s College of Nursing and its veterinary technician program — found that putting fish tanks in facilities that treat patients with advanced Alzheimer’s disease improved patient eating habits and decreased negative behaviors. Using the biophilia hypothesis — which claims that humans have an instinctual affinity for animals and nature — researchers found that patients who could no longer interact with other people or watch television would in fact pay attention to fish.

“People with Alzheimer’s disease don’t eat very well because they’re too agitated and just don’t have the same connection to hunger,” says Beck. “Our theory was that they would eat more if they had something to distract them, but they had nothing they could pay attention to.” The results of the study were even better than Beck and his colleagues expected, as patients would not only comply with eating when allowed to do so in front of the fish tanks, but also exhibited less agitation and negative interactions with caretakers and staff. Today, the use of fish tanks in Alzheimer’s treatment facilities is an almost universal practice, says Beck.

“It goes to show that our attraction to nature and animals is so deep-seated that it survives even dementia,” he says. “It’s an example of a true hypothesis-driven animal intervention … that resulted in a public health advantage.”

Mueller, who is a licensed psychologist specializing in child development, says that at TIHAI, research has demonstrated that animals can be used to motivate children who are learning to read, help disabled individuals complete occupational therapy exercises, and reduce symptoms of PTSD in children and veterans.

Much of her own research has focused on the effectiveness of animals in reducing stress, particularly for children in military families who move frequently or have a parent deployed. “We had a hypothesis that animals could serve as a source of social support for these children,” says Mueller. “We saw that they did experience high levels of stress, as you might expect, but having high attachment to a pet resulted in better adaptive coping skills.” She hopes her research will shed more light on these benefits, as it can be inconvenient and costly for families who frequently move to have a pet.

Students play with Toby during a stress-relief event on Tufts University’s main campus.

Similarly, a major barrier to animal-assisted therapies is often the cost. While equine therapy is typically the most expensive form — CHAB had to eliminate its program due to a lack of funding — nonprofit organizations exist that help provide these services, especially for veterans with PTSD. A goal of the TIHAI — and human-animal research in general — Mueller says, is to validate the effectiveness of such therapies so that they can be covered by health insurance and become more accessible. “I think that’s part of why this research is so important,” says Mueller. “If we can demonstrate that these types of animal-assistance programs are effective, then we can get insurance [to cover them] and not have a socioeconomic divide between people who can afford these services and those who can’t.”

The TIHAI has partnered with one such program, Pet Partners, to create Tufts Paws for People. Housed in the TIHAI, Paws for People conducts research on best practices for animal-assisted stress-relief programs, as well as trains animal-handler teams to visit schools, hospitals, and other locations. Whitney Allen, a fourth-year veterinary student at Tufts University, volunteers with her dog Toby; together, they visit college campuses for stress-relief events, particularly during final exams, and conduct patient visits at adult psychiatric facilities.

Students love getting the chance to relax and play with Toby during campus visits, where he knows it’s OK to act boisterous, says Allen. Conversely, he knows to behave more calmly when visiting psychiatric facilities, where patients often interact with and talk to Toby even if they don’t communicate well with people. “Toby and I notice the difference in the people we visit,” says Allen, adding that nurses and staff often tell her that patients are happier and more talkative following visits with Toby. “We visited one young man who was completely nonverbal, but after several visits, he finally spoke to me, [saying,] ‘Before Toby comes to see me, I am full of pain, but when he’s here, my pain goes away.’ ”

This, Allen says, is the kind of experience that makes human-animal relationships so satisfying, whether the animal is a cat, guinea pig, rabbit, or even a potbelly pig.— all of which Paws for People uses.

“People really enjoy being involved and giving back to the community,” Mueller says of the many pet owners who volunteer with Paws for People and similar nonprofit animal-assistance programs. As demand grows for such programs — both simple visitations and highly structured therapies — Mueller says she hopes that access to these powerful services also grows so that everyone can experience the benefits of human-animal interactions.●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.