EAST LANSING, Mich. - It's often said that when people pet a dog or cat, their nerves are soothed and they generally just feel better.
How exactly does this happen? And can this phenomenon be put to other uses, such as helping children with chronic diseases?
In an effort to get to the science behind the stories, Michigan State University faculty are joining community groups to form the Human Animal Bond Initiative. The goal: To better understand the interactions between humans and animals and to better assess how animals enrich human lives.
"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, but very little scientific data that says, 'This is good,'" said Lana Kaiser, a professor in the MSU College of Nursing who is heading up the project. "We all believe that it's good, but there's no data. This makes it difficult to incorporate animals in therapeutic settings, such as some hospitals."
The initiative is bringing together faculty from MSU's colleges of Nursing, Human Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Social Science and Agriculture and Natural Resources, as well as nurses, veterinarians, physical therapists and experts in cultural anthropology from the private sector.
The project also is working with some units that traditionally wouldn't be linked to the human-animal bond. That includes the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography in which students are designing facilities that are animal-friendly.
"Our goals are to foster knowledge of the bond, scientifically validate its benefits, enhance the education of students and to work collaboratively with communities to develop services that use animals in health promotion," said Kaiser, a registered nurse who also is a physician and veterinarian.
A number of research projects have already sprung from the initiative, including studying the effect companion animals can have on residents of nursing homes and the animals' influence on children who have chronic diseases such as diabetes.
"As a parent, I can only imagine the stress and distress in families with chronically and terminally ill children," said Sally Walshaw, an associate professor of small animal clinical sciences and a national expert in the human-animal bond. "A pet can bring a smile to a child's face, and there is nothing more valuable to a parent than even a moment of happiness for the child.
"Love for creatures great and small enriches a child's life, even when the child must face pain or a life that ends all too soon."
"The cost of caring for chronically ill children, both in financial and emotional terms, is huge," Kaiser said. "We feel anything that can be done that could decrease these costs would be a good thing."
Collaborations are ongoing with several organizations, including the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta.
"Cheff was the first nonprofit organization and facility specifically created to provide therapeutic services to handicapped individuals using the horse as a therapeutic device," said John Hanieski, a member of the Cheff board of directors. "We are interested in scientifically validating the improvements we see every day."