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Health benefits of pets
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Most readers who own a pet, be it dog, cat, bird, ferret, horse or other creature, can probably speak to the emotional benefits of owning an adoring animal. Anecdotes are prolific about the human health benefits of companion animals, both service and therapy animals, and family pets. (I’m not too sure about goldfish, however.) But in-depth scientific research into this apparently obvious phenomenon are rare. Now, however, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health, is embarking on a study of whether animals can have tangible effects on the well-being of children.

The Child Health Institute is seeking proposals that "focus on the interaction between humans and animals." Specifically, it is looking for studies on how interactions between humans and animals affect typical development and health. They want to know if these interactions have therapeutic and public-health benefits. The Institute is also seeking studies that investigate why relationships with pets are more important to some children than to others, the quality of child-pet relationships and the variability of human-animal relationships within a family."

The Child Health Institute is embarking on these studies in conjunction with the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition in England (part of the Mars candy and pet food company), which is expanding its own research about human-animal relationships. Catherine E. Woteki, global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc., stated, "We are a pet food company and pet care company and we’re interested in seeing that that relationship stays a strong one."

People who work with animals anticipate that the research will confirm their observations. For example, many volunteers at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Southern Califorinia regularly take their dogs to visit patients. Children being treated for serious illnesses often have anxiety and depressed mood. "The dogs brighten them up," said Emily Grankowski, an employee who supervises the pet therapy program at the hospital. She said that some patients who have refused to speak will talk to the dogs, and others who have refused to move will reach for the dogs to pet them. Some of the animals have actually become a part of the treatment programs that involve speech and movement.

Karin Winegar wrote the book "Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform" and stated that "The human-animal bond bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart and emotions and nurtures us in ways that nothing else can. We’ve seen this from coast to coast, whether it’s disabled children at a riding center in California or a nursing home in Minnesota, where a woman with Alzheimer’s could not recognize her husband, but she could recognize their beloved dog."

C. Kirven Weekley, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with offices in Covington and Norcross. He specializes in the evaluation and treatment of adults for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and medical issues. He can be reached at (770) 441-9244.