Changing Planet

The health and emotional benefits of human-animal interaction

Does interaction between humans and animals provide significant health benefits?

Many pet owners say that that their animals provide company, happiness, and other emotional fulfillment.


NGS photo by Howell Walker

“Being around dogs can have a calming effect,” pet writer Maryann Mott reported for National Geographic News a few years ago. “Studies have shown that physiological changes occur when people touch dogs: a drop in heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduced stress.”

In a separate news story, Lara Suziedelis Bogle reported that “therapy dogs” seem to boost the health of sick and lonely people. “Most people are familiar with dogs that assist their blind or otherwise disabled owners,” Bogle wrote. “Therapy dogs offer a different kind of help. Some pay informal social visits to people to boost their spirits, while others work in a more structured environment with trained professionals like physical therapists and social workers to help patients reach clinical goals, such as increased mobility or improved memory.”


NGS photo by Dean Conger

This fall, the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) will explore the many ways animals benefit people of all ages. The opportunity to do this will be at the International Society for Anthrozoology and Human-Animal Interaction Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Lowers blood pressure, encourages exercise, improves psychological

health–these may sound like the effects of a miracle drug, but they

are actually among the benefits of owning a four-legged, furry pet.”

“Lowers blood pressure, encourages exercise, improves psychological health–these may sound like the effects of a miracle drug, but they are actually among the benefits of owning a four-legged, furry pet,” ReCHAI said in a statement about the conference.

“Research in this field is providing new evidence on the positive impact pets have in our lives,” said Rebecca Johnson, associate professor in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, the College of Veterinary Medicine and director of ReCHAI. “This conference will provide a unique opportunity to connect international experts working in human-animal interaction research with those already working in the health and veterinary medicine fields.”


NGS photo by William E. Eppridge

The conference, from October 20 to October 25, will feature presentations that will show how beneficial animals can be in the lives of children, families and older adults.

Marty Becker, a veterinary contributor to ABC’s “Good Morning America” for more than 12 years, will give a presentation called “The Power of Love: the science and the soul behind that affection-connection we call The Bond.”


NGS photo by W. Robert Moore

Other conference discussions will include ways that human-animal interaction benefits humans and animals, new facets of human-animal interaction, and ways to apply new human-animal interaction knowledge to their fields, the university said. Some of the presentations will highlight the special role of companion animals in facilitating reading and physical activity in children and adults.

“Pets are of great importance to people, especially during hard economic times,” Johnson said. “Pets provide unconditional love and acceptance and may be part of answers to societal problems, such as inactivity and obesity.”


NGS photo by Gilbert M. Grosvenor

In 2008 ReCHAI sponsored the “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound and Stay Fit for Seniors.” In the preliminary program, a group of older adults were matched with shelter dogs, while another group of older adults were partnered with a human walk buddy. For 12 weeks, participants were encouraged to walk on an outdoor trail for one hour, five times a week. At the end of the program, researchers measured how much the older adults’ activity levels improved.

“The older people who walked their dogs improved their walking

capabilities by 28 percent…The older people

who walked with humans only had a 4 percent increase in their walking


“The older people who walked their dogs improved their walking capabilities by 28 percent,” Johnson said. “They had more confidence walking on the trail, and they increased their speed. The older people who walked with humans only had a 4 percent increase in their walking capabilities. The human walking buddies tended to discourage each other and used excuses such as the weather being too hot.”

“The few studies that have been conducted suggest that pet ownership may have multiple health and emotional benefits for both children and adults,” said James Griffin, a scientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “But there has been relatively little rigorous research documenting these benefits and examining how and why they occur. By providing support for this conference and additional research studies, we hope to generate some answers.”


NGS photo by Emory Kristof

The Human-Animal Interaction Conference will bring together people around the world working on similar projects as ReCHAI, Johnson said. These people include nurses, physicians, veterinarians, social workers, psychologists, physical and occupational therapists, and activity directors.

“Today, pets are in more than 60 percent of American homes,” said Charlotte McKenney, assistant director of ReCHAI. “Research involving human-animal interaction can be extremely beneficial. More people are incorporating pets into their leisure time, such as making them part of their exercise routines, taking them to dog parks and bringing them to family events.”

For more information or to register for the conference, visit the conference Web site.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Rob

    I totally agree… Days when I’m stressed out from work can be cured just by playing fetch or taking the dogs for a walk.
    Free Dogs

  • Francelino Ximenes

    It’s my first time to read that animal can benefit humankind. I really appreciate on it means that I completely agree that animal can improve both psychological and physical health. Unfortunately in many developed countries it looks like rarely happen and many people have been benefited by killing animals to consume for their health.

  • lisa at Ameripooch

    Totally agree. My two dogs and I are Pet Assisted Therapy Teams, and I am also an RN, working in long term care, and have seen the incredible benefits. From socialization with other residents, visitors, and healthcare providers, to a resident that refused personal care daily, but was pleasant and cooperative with care after a visit with a dog (so much better than giving antIanxiey medications) and to a stoke victim that smiled for 25 minutes became she was petting a dog, you just have to believe!

  • Sander Bauer

    But what about a worm?
    Let’s broaden our view a bit…
    How does the private husbandry of other animal species affect wellbeing?

  • tgfghjdjfgdg

    I love Animals espesially dogs

  • Donna

    my dog died and then my other dog helped me get through

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