Pets are Powerful

There is nothing like the feeling of joy when you come home to find a faithful companion. Pets are more than just companions. They can provide unconditional love. Pets can also reduce stress, improve heart-health, and help children develop their social and emotional skills.

A pet is in 68% of U.S. homes. Who benefits from an animal, though? Which types of pets are health-beneficial?

In the last 10 years, NIH and Mars Corporation’s WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition have partnered to fund research studies that answer these questions.

Scientists examine the physical and mental benefits of different animals, from fish to guinea-pigs to cats and dogs.

Potential Health Effects

Human-animal interaction research is relatively new. Some studies have shown positive effects on health, but the results are mixed.

It has been proven that interacting with animals can lower cortisol levels (a hormone related to stress) and blood pressure. Animals can also reduce loneliness, boost mood, and increase social support.

The NIH/Mars Partnership funds a variety of studies that focus on our relationship with animals. Researchers are studying how animals can influence child development. Researchers are studying the interactions between animals and children with autism, ADHD, and other conditions.

There is no one way a pet can be of help to someone with a particular condition, explains Dr. Layla Esposito who oversees NIH’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Program. Is your goal to improve physical activity? You might be able to benefit from having a dog. Walking a dog multiple times per day will increase your physical activity. You can reduce stress by watching fish swim. There’s no single type that fits everyone.”

NIH funds large-scale studies to determine the types of pets that people own and their relationship with them.

“We are trying to tap into that subjective quality in the relationship between the animal and the person–that part that people feel for animals–and see how this translates into health benefits,” explains James Griffin, a child-development expert at NIH.

Animals Helping People

Animals are a great source of support and comfort. This is something that therapy dogs excel at. Sometimes they are brought into nursing homes or hospitals to reduce the stress of patients.

Dogs are always present. “If someone is struggling, they know how sit there and love,” says Dr. Ann Berger. She’s a researcher and physician at the NIH Clinic Center in Bethesda. “Their focus is on the person at all times.”

Berger helps people with cancer and terminal illnesses. She teaches mindfulness to help reduce stress and manage pain.

Berger says that the foundations of mindfulness are attention, intention and compassion. “Animals bring all of these things to the table. It’s something that people have to learn. “Animals do this inherently.”

Researchers are looking into the safety of bringing animals to hospitals because they may expose patients to more germs. Esposito says that a current study examines the safety of having dogs visit children with cancer. Scientists will test the hands of the children to determine if they have dangerous levels germs from the dog.

Canines may be helpful in the classroom. In one study, it was found that dogs could help ADHD children focus their attention. Researchers enrolled children with ADHD in 12-week group sessions. First, the kids were asked to read 30 minutes a week to a therapy animal. The second group of kids read to puppets that resembled dogs.

Children who were read to by real animals displayed better social skills, more sharing, co-operation, and volunteerism. The kids also showed fewer behavioral issues.

In a second study, children with autism spectrum disorders were found to be calmer when playing with guinea-pigs in the class. The anxiety levels of the children dropped after 10 minutes of supervised playtime in groups with guinea-pigs. Children also showed better social interaction and were more involved with their peers. Researchers suggest that animals offer unconditional acceptance and are a comforting presence for children.

Griffin says that animals can be a way to bridge social interactions. Griffin says that researchers are working to understand the effects of these animals and how they can help.

You may be surprised by the unexpected ways animals can help you. Recent research showed that taking care of fish helped diabetes teens better manage their condition. Researchers asked a group teens with type I diabetes to feed and check the water level of a pet twice daily. Caretaking also involved changing the water in the tank every week. The children were also asked to review their blood sugar (glucose) logs.

Researchers tracked the frequency with which these teens checked their glucose levels. The fish-keeping teens had a higher level of discipline in checking their blood glucose than teens who didn’t have a fish. This is important for maintaining health.

Pets can bring many health benefits. However, they may not be right for everyone. Recent studies have shown that exposure to pets early in life may protect children against allergies and asthma. Pets in the house can be harmful to people with allergies.

Helping each other

Pets come with new responsibilities. Owning a pet includes knowing how to feed and care for an animal. NIH/Mars finances studies that examine the effects of interactions between humans and animals on both the animal and the owner.

Animals can also feel tired and stressed. Kids should be able recognize the signs of stress and avoid approaching their pets when they do. Animal bites are dangerous.

Esposito says that “Dog bites prevention is definitely an issue parents should consider, especially with young children who may not always understand the boundaries for what’s acceptable to do around a dog.”

Researchers will continue exploring the health benefits of owning a pet. Esposito explains that they are trying to determine what works, what doesn’t work, and what is safe for both humans and animals.