CHICAGO (CBS) – Researchers meeting in Chicago have presented findings from three new studies that show health and other benefits from human-animal interaction. Scientists who examined the impact of pets on physical and emotional health and on human social relationships have found positive and lasting effects of pet ownership and pet therapy.
“What we’re seeing overwhelmingly is benefits from the interaction,” says Dr. Sandra McCune, Scientific Leader of Human-Animal Interaction at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. Based in Leicestershire, England, Waltham conducts scientific research for Mars Petcare whose brands include Pedigree dog food.
In one of the studies, University of Maryland researchers looked at elderly adults with dementia residing in assisted-living facilities and found that structured interaction with a dog helped improve their mental health and physical function. The study involved 40 elderly adults with dementia who had two, 60-90 minute sessions per week for three months, during which they could interact with a visiting dog. The interaction included feeding and grooming the dog using large and small motor skills.
“They had to put a collar on the dog or do something that was dog-related and what they found was that really helped their physical functionality of being able to open things and being able to manipulate things with their hands,” McCune says. “What you find is that it really improves their mental health so their depression scores are lower (better) and their physical function is better. And over time, those results persisted.”
For people with dementia, improving their mental health and physical function could help them remain independent and stay out of nursing homes longer. “What we want is to keep those people in their own homes or in lower level, lower intensive care so that they don’t have to go into more intensive , more expensive care situations,” says McCune.
Results of the second study showed that pet owners are more likely to meet people and make new friends. Among participants, dog walking was found to be one of the top five ways to meet new people. More pet owners than non-pet owners got to know people after moving into a neighborhood.
“What we find is that if you are a dog owner and you are out and about with your dog, you get to know people much more easily, have more friends and get integrated into the community better. They get involved with other people, not just in a kind of say hi relationship but actually they start forming friendships where they’re getting tangible, measurable types of support from these people,” McCune says.
The study, which involved a sampling of 2500 adults in Australia and the United States, found that pet ownership also leads to increased physical activity and improves the perception of neighborhood safety among both the pet owners and wider community.
“People who go out with their dogs have better perceptions of safety in the community, they know their community better and they’re the eyes on the street. And that’s not only true for them but it’s true for other people who don’t have dogs. They like to see people out with dogs.”
In the third study, researchers at Washington State University examined the interactions among young adolescents and horses. A total of 64 participants between the ages of 10 and 14 took part and were assigned to either an experimental or control group. Those in the experimental group participated in an 11-week program involving horses. For those youngsters, the program had a positive effect on their social competence, self-awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, decision-making, and relationship skills.
All together, the research shows significant benefit from human-animal interaction. While more study is needed, McCune says there’s plenty of evidence now that owning a pet will improve a person’s health and well-being.
“People who are pet owners generally go to the doctor about 15-to-20 percent less often than other people. And that’s been shown in several different countries – Australia, Germany, Canada and China. So there is a real cost savings to the nation.”
McCune says researchers have seen another benefit of pet therapy — fewer pills for people whose conditions have improved thanks to four-legged intervention.
“In some studies, that’s what you see. Some people are actually on lower medication or can do without medication.”
And based on these new studies, McCune says she wouldn’t be surprised if someday doctors write prescriptions for pets instead of pills.