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Pet Power

Project examining how animals help the sick, aging

SUNDAY, June 3, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The powerful bonds that many people form with their pets are well-known and long-celebrated. But now researchers want to get at the science behind those relationships and see how it can be used for therapeutic purposes.

The project, called the Human-Animal Bond Initiative, is a collaboration of faculty from a handful of divisions at Michigan State University, including the Nursing, Human Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Social Science, and Agriculture and Natural Resources colleges. It also includes nurses, veterinarians, physical therapists and experts in cultural anthropology from the private sector.

Their goal: To better understand the relationships between people and animals, and to better assess how animals enrich human lives.

Lana Kaiser, a College of Nursing professor who heads the project, says there is little existing research documenting the benefits of human-animal bonds.

"We need to validate through research the positive effects of the relationships humans have with animals, so we can then use that in a therapeutic way," she says.

Projects that have already evolved from the initiative include a study on the effects of pets on nursing-home residents, and animals' influence on children who have chronic diseases.

"Our hypothesis is that kids with chronic disease, such as diabetes, who have attachments with pets are going to have better self-esteem and quality of life," Kaiser says.

"Also, we're looking at the caregiver burden. Usually, it's the parents responsible for the care of the child, and we want to look at whether the pet has an impact on the burden that [parents] perceive they have. Again, we feel the burden will seem less in families with relationships with pets," she adds.

The potential for allowing pets in hospitals even has the university's landscape architecture program in on the act -- students are designing facilities that are animal-friendly.

The bottom line, Kaiser says, is to back up the countless stories of the value of pet therapy with hard science.

"So much of the literature out there is anecdotal, and you can't convince the administrators of hospitals based on anecdotes," she says.

There is one big drawback to so many anecdotes, points out Nancy Peterson, an issues specialist with the Humane Society's national office in Washington, D.C.

People jump the gun and adopt an animal without considering the consequences, she says.

"Having a pet is a lifetime commitment, and some of the most common reasons why pets are given up or put out in the backyard are that people don't have realistic expectations of what it will involve to care for that pet," she adds.

You need to consider factors that range from financial responsibility, to pet allergies among family members, even to personal fastidiousness before bringing a pet into your home, Peterson adds.

"You have to think about things like, if an animal has a house-training accident in the house, is that going to send you off? Are you going to mind having cat hair here, there and everywhere?

"If you're a very fastidious person and these things set you off, you have to be realistic and consider if this is the right pet for you. Because you're usually looking at a 10-to-15 year commitment, at least."

What To Do

Read more about pets in these HealthDay stories.

Contact the Humane Society for more information on what you need to know before adopting a pet.

SOURCES: Interviews with Lana Kaiser, M.D., R.N., D.M.V., professor, Michigan State University College of Nursing; Nancy Peterson, issues specialist, Humane Society's national office, Washington, D.C.; Michigan State University press release
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