Whether furry or feathered, pets share special bond with people

Throughout history, many great leaders have recognized the unique and powerful relationship between pets and people. Yet only in the last few decades have we begun to study the relationship in earnest.

One of my all time favorite heroes is Florence Nightingale for her legendary work as a volunteer nurse during the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. Some of her earliest documented attempts at nursing included helping injured or abandoned animals. She later translated that compassion to people in need, and wherever there was suffering she was there offering comfort and aid.

Pet Walk 9Nightingale also recognized that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill. In 1860 she wrote, “A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially. A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room.”

Like Nightingale, the Hawaiian Humane Society has also advocated for animals to be able to provide comfort to the frail, elderly and sick. More than 30 years ago, in June 1983, the society started its pet visitation program to bring the joy of animal companionship to the ill and disabled.

By 1990, 8,000 island residents benefited from this program annually. Today, more than 50 volunteers visit 50 facilities providing more than just cuddly companionship. The furry and four-legged trot through hospital hallways doling out medicine with a wag of the tail and a cold nose, which has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety, renew self-esteem and lower blood pressure. This benefit is not only for patients, but the many doctors and nurses that we work with who assert that our program enhances productivity and joy in their workplaces.

So many of us know that intuitively “the bond” between humans and animals has benefits. That’s why pet ownership on Oahu has increased to more than 60 percent of homes. Those of us who share our lives with pets know that those furry and feathered creatures bring out the best in us and a growing body of scientific research now proves that animal companionship can also make us healthier.

pets feature 2In the late 1970s, researchers began to explore and recognize the science of the human-animal bond. One needs to look no further than the increasing use of animals in institutional settings from hospitals and nursing homes to schools and mental health centers. One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t have a pet. Another early study found that petting a dog could reduce blood pressure.

More recently, the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine has been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase a person’s level of the hormone oxytocin, which elevates feelings of happiness and trust. It also increases the body’s state of readiness to heal and to grow new cells, predisposing us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.

Another University of Missouri project focused on the value of dog-walking by studying volunteers who walk dogs at animal shelters. These programs have clearly helped people get healthier and  exercise more. It further turns out the program was also helping the dogs. The dogs were significantly more likely to be adopted thanks to the additional exercise and socialization.

Such studies have mobilized organizations such as the National Institutes of Health to create a federal research program to study human-animal interaction – offering scientists research grants to study the impact of animals on child development, in physical and psychological therapeutic treatments, and on the effects of animals on public health, including their ability to reduce or prevent disease.

It has never been more evident that animals are the silent ambassadors of hope and joy, as well as health and healing. We have such a special responsibility to celebrate, protect and advocate for them.

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Jacque Vaughn is a life-long animal lover and the community relations director for the Hawaiian Humane Society. She can be reached at jvaughn@hawaiianhumane.org.

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