Researcher: Pets Keep People Healthy

ByABC News
October 9, 2002, 1:01 PM

Oct. 10 -- A golden retriever called Janie waltzed down the hall of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles awhile back and into the room of a patient who had refused to talk with anyone for several weeks. Then Janie did something that the best medical treatments had been unable to do.

As she put her paws on the edge of the bed, the patient leaned over, began stroking her ears and talking.

That scene astonished the attending physician, according to one witness who was present for Janie's healing magic, and it underscored a growing feeling among health- care professionals.

It appears that sometimes, the best therapy of all can be given by a pet. Researchers across the country are learning that pets can do everything from reducing blood pressure during times of intense stress to easing the pains of loneliness.

"It's an up and coming field," says Lana Kaiser, professor of nursing at Michigan State University. Kaiser, who is also a physician and a veterinarian, is the driving force behind a conference called the Human-Animal Bond Initiative, which is held on the campus each year. It is designed to bring researchers from across the country together to exchange information about their work.

The motto is "Cuddle a Critter and Call Me in the Morning," Kaiser says.

Family Dog May Be More Helpful Than Drugs

The field, apparently, is finally coming into its own, based on the fact that scientists have pinned a label on it, complete with acronym. Researchers at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, who have shown that even 30 minutes per week with a pet can significantly reduce loneliness among residents of long-term health facilities, call it "animal-assisted therapy (AAT.)"

Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, there's some serious research taking place in various institutions in an effort to put numbers on the results and provide scientific evidence about the role animals can play in human healing. Some results suggest that the family pooch may be more helpful than drugs, at least in some cases.