Pets are the Power

There is nothing like the feeling of being reunited with a beloved pet. A pet’s unconditional love can do much more than keep you company. Pets can help with stress reduction, heart health, and emotional well-being.

A staggering of American households own a pet. Who benefits from having an animal in their home? Which type of pet is best for your health?

To answer these questions, NIH has partnered with Mars Corporation’s WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition over the past ten years. This partnership funds research studies.

Scientists are currently examining the potential mental and physical health benefits for various animals, from fish to guinea pigs to dogs to cats.

Potential Health Effects

The research on interactions between humans and animals is still very new. Although some studies have shown positive effects on health, the results are mixed.

Interacting with animals has been proven to reduce cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and lower blood pressure. Studies have shown that animals can help you feel more connected, relieve loneliness, and improve your mood.

A variety of studies are funded by the NIH/Mars Partnership. They focus on our relationships with animals. Researchers are studying how animals can influence child development. They are studying the interactions of animals with children who have autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as other conditions.

Dr. Layla Esposito oversees NIH’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Program. She says, “There is no one way a pet can help someone with a particular condition.” Is your goal to increase your physical activity? A dog could be an excellent option for you. Walking a dog daily is a good way to increase your physical activity. Sometimes watching fish swim can help you feel calm if your goal is to reduce stress. There is no one size fits.

The NIH funds large-scale surveys to determine the number of pets people have and their relationship with them.

Dr. James Griffin, a child development expert at NIH, says, “we’re trying to tap into that subjective quality of the animal relationship–that part that people feel with animals and how it translates into some health benefits.”

Animals Helping People

Animals can be comforting and supportive. Therapy dogs are particularly adept at this. Sometimes, they are brought to hospitals and nursing homes to reduce stress and anxiety.

“Dogs can be very present. “Dogs can be very present when someone is in pain. They know how to love and support them,” Dr. Ann Berger, a doctor, and researcher at the NIH Clinic Center in Bethesda. “Their attention is always on the person.”

Berger assists people with terminal illnesses and cancer. To help manage stress and pain, she teaches mindfulness.

Berger states that mindfulness is built on attention, intention, and compassion. All of these things are something animals bring to the table. It is something that people have to learn. This is what animals do naturally.”

Because animals can expose people to more germs, researchers are investigating whether it is safe to bring animals into hospitals. Esposito said a current study examines the safety of dogs visiting children with cancer. Scientists will test the hands of the children to determine if germs have been transmitted from the dog.

Dogs can also help in the classroom. A study showed that dogs could help ADHD children to focus their attention. Two groups of ADHD children were enrolled in 12-week-long group therapy sessions by researchers. One group of children read to a therapy dog for 30 minutes once a week. The second group read to puppets resembling dogs.

Children reading to real animals had better social skills, cooperation, sharing, and volunteering. They also had fewer behavioral problems.

Another study showed that children with autism spectrum disorder felt calmer playing with guinea pigs in class. Their anxiety levels fell when the children could spend 10 minutes with guinea pigs in a group setting. Children also showed better social interaction and were more involved with their peers. Researchers believe that animals provide unconditional acceptance and comfort, which makes them ideal companions for children.

Griffin states that animals can be used to build bridges between people. Griffin says that researchers are working to understand the effects of these animals and how they can benefit others.

Other surprising ways animals can help you are obscure. Recent research has shown that teens with diabetes can manage their disease by caring for fish. A group of teenagers with type 1 diabetes was asked to care for their pet fish twice daily, checking the water level and feeding it. Caretaking included water changes every week and feeding the fish twice daily. This was done with children reviewing their blood sugar logs with their parents.

Researchers monitored how often these teens checked their blood sugar levels. Teens who kept fish were more disciplined in checking their blood glucose levels than teens who didn’t have fish to feed. This is vital for their health.

Although pets can provide various health benefits, they may not be suitable for everyone. Recent research suggests that children exposed to pets early in life may be less likely to develop allergies or asthma later. However, pets can cause more harm than good for those allergic to certain animals.

Supporting each other

Pets can also come with new responsibilities. Owning a pet means knowing how to take care of and feed it. The NIH/Mars funds research examining the effects of human-animal interactions on the pet and the owner.

It is possible for animals to feel tired and stressed. Children must learn to identify signs of stress in pets and when to avoid them. Animal bites can lead to serious injury.

Esposito says, “Dog bit prevention is something parents should consider,”, especially for children under five who may not know what to do with dogs.

The research will continue to investigate the health benefits of owning a pet. Esposito states, “We’re trying out what’s going well, what’s not, and what’s safe for both humans and animals.