KARINE AIGNER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE/GETTY
GOLDFISH: TETRA IMAGES/CORBIS
Don't have a pet? Get the benefits anyhow.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a full-time furry friend. Allergies, apartment rules and a shortage of free time help explain why 40% of American households don't include a pet.
But even the mere presence of animals, without direct interaction, can be calming, says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. "These activities are a way of enjoying some of the positive feelings we have toward nature and animals without actually having direct animal ownership." Here are some ideas:
-- Laura Hoxworth
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PHOTO: ANT STRACK, CORBIS
Watch a Lassie movie and spit into a cup. It doesn't sound like it, but this is cutting-edge research. By analyzing saliva, researcher Cheryl Krause-Parello can tell that merely watching a dog in a movie lowers people's stress.
In recent years, research has demonstrated the healthful benefits of pets. Now, investigators are trying to figure out why pets are good for us. Krause-Parello, assistant professor and director of the Center for Nursing Research at Kean University in Union, N.J., learned that people feel better after watching a Lassie flick because their levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, take a free fall.
“We once had to argue why this was a valid focus to conduct research,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., a pioneer in the field. “Today, the National Institutes of Health and science in general recognize the overall value of pets.
“What we're embarking on now is to better understand why animals have such an intrinsic value and how to use this relationship in relation to children and our aging population.”
In 2002, Beck solved a problem common among those who have Alzheimer's: a loss of interest in eating. After bowls of goldfish were placed in nursing-facility dining rooms, most patients experienced an appetite increase and subsequent weight gain.
Nursing facilities also made lighting more naturalistic and screened classic movies, but only the goldfish triggered an appetite increase. How could watching goldfish stimulate appetites of people who often couldn't even describe what they were seeing? The answer has become Beck's goal: Discover what lies at the heart of the human-animal bond and how to harness it to improve lives.
In her book For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell, a certified applied animal behaviorist, writes that levels of oxytocin, a mood-affecting neurotransmitter and “feel-good” hormone in the brain, increase by merely petting a dog.
Undoubtedly true, says Marc Bekoff, an ethologist at the University of Colorado and author of The Animal Manifesto. “At the very core of who we are, I believe we all relate to nature and the animal world. I believe animals provide a primitive comfort.”
The real question, he says, is: Why?
Results of a decade-long study suggest cats may have special health-sustaining qualities, which is probably no big surprise to Americans, who own more cats than dogs. For 10 years, Adnan Qureshi, professor of neurosurgery and neurology at the University of Minnesota, followed 4,500 people and in 2008 announced his study's intriguing conclusions: Those who owned a cat were 40% less likely to die from heart attacks than those who had no feline in their lives. Owning a dog did not appear to convey the same protection. That statistical result is so far unexplained, Qureshi says. Other factors may contribute to the difference.
Several studies have shown that dogs encourage people to exercise (that's good for the heart, of course), but cats have at least one talent no dog has: They purr. Why they purr isn't completely understood; cats purr when they're content, but they also purr as a way to soothe themselves, to relax kittens and probably to lower their own anxiety when they're sick or under stress.
Could it be that their purring is also soothing to people in ways we don't understand? Qureshi thinks so and is about to study the phenomenon. But measuring purring's importance is challenging. “Is it the purring that matters,” he wonders, “or the mere presence of the cat, petting the cat or a combination?”
The Lassie lifeline
The bond between human and animal can benefit children, even change their lives.
“Horses saved my life,” says Marie McCabe, senior vice president of the Human-Animal Bond Division at the American Humane Association. Knowing and caring for horses changed her, she says, and carried her through a “bumpy” childhood. “Without horses, my life would have gone another way,” she says.
Such anecdotes have abounded for years, but now there's science behind them. In 2003, Barbara McClasky, a nursing professor at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, studied children 7 to 14 years old. If they lived with a pet — any pet — their self-concept and competence increased, she found.
“I'm not suggesting that living with a lizard or bird really matters,” McClasky says, as there weren't enough exotic pets for statistical significance in the study. “But clearly, cats were as beneficial as dogs.”
For children (also 7 to 14 years old) who had serious chronic or even life-threatening illnesses, pets were even more important, McClasky says, “I suspect because those sick children required the comfort and non-judgmental friend even more.”
Such study results are changing how some services are delivered. One example is the American Humane Association's newly launched Therapy Animals Supporting Kids (TASK) program.
“Children who have been abused must undergo a forensic interview and physical exam at a child advocacy center — it's pretty scary stuff,” McCabe says. The trained therapy dogs TASK uses in the program “are able to truly provide comfort to these children,” she says. “But I bet more is going on — something physiological.”
In any case, she says, “the program is working.”
Says Krause-Parello: “We know the dogs can help, but what's really going on? Resolving that mystery is the next piece of the puzzle.”
At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., oncologist Edward Creagan has devised a method to persuade the computer system to let him “prescribe” a pet.
“A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits,” Creagan says. “I can't always explain it myself, but for years now I've seen how instances of having a pet is like an effective drug. It really does help people.”