Evidence that owning a pet provides human health benefits continues to mount: A recent study by Rebecca Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing, College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the school's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, shows that having a pet can lower cortisol, the stress hormone, in aging adults, while increasing oxytocin, prolactin and norepinephrine (hormones related to joy, nurturing and relaxation).
This is not news for anyone who has had the opportunity to be at a nursing home or another facility where older adults live and see their faces light up when a therapy pet visits. For example, I've witnessed my 81-year-old mother-in-law delight in having her Jack Russell Terrier visit during a recent nursing home stay. But it's good to have data to back up those personal impressions, because my mother-in-law's experience is rather unique; many facilities for older patients, at least in the US, do not have pet-friendly policies.
Several years ago, I also had to watch my own mother give up her two beloved cats as Alzheimer's disease began taking away her ability to live safely on her own. Unfortunately, none of us were in a position to give her the care she needed in our homes, so she moved into an "assisted-living" facility that did not allow pets. This was not unusual; most of the places we checked out with her had a strict no-pets policy. That included not allowing even brief visits by pets, therapy or otherwise. Even if she had been able to continue to enjoy the companionship of pets, Mom would have eventually succumbed to her disease (she died in 2009); but I can't help believe that her quality of life, along with that of her fellow patients, would have been enriched by having at least an occasional encounter with a pet.
Aside from such personal matters, proving the benefits of pet ownership to human health is important because in the US and other developed pet markets, pet ownership is flat or at least not growing at long-term sustainable rates. That's one reason the American Pet Products Association has teamed up with other organizations -- including petfood and treat companies like Hill's Pet Nutrition, Central Garden and Pet, Hartz, Natural Balance, Sergeant's Pet Care and WellPet -- to found and support the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI). Earlier this year, APPA announced HABRI Central, an online resource for hosting, organizing and promoting human-animal bond studies. It is hosted by the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine and Purdue Libraries.
I encourage anyone with even a passing interest in this subject to check out the HABRI Central site, which houses a wealth of interesting articles, discussions and questions, including some from what appear to be pet owners. If you're really interested in this type of work, consider asking your company to support a particular research initiative or HABRI in general. Besides linking your company to a positive cause, the support might also help ensure increasing pet ownership for years to come. And that provides both personal and professional returns.
Debbie Phillips-Donaldson is editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry and Petfood Forum.
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