Pets And Owners Form A Mutually Beneficial Bond

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Julie Rovner, NPR health policy correspondent
Rebecca Johnson, director, Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, University of Missouri's Sinclair School of Nursing

A growing field of medical research aims to pinpoint exactly why pets can make us happier and healthier. Some studies show that animal interaction can increase a person's level of oxytocin, a hormone associated with love and trust. And the animals also benefit from positive human interaction.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington; Neal Conan is away. If you love your pet - wait a minute, when you love your pet, you no doubt view your cat, your dog, your bird, your hamster, whatever this friendly critter is, as a source of joy for you. But actually, this joy may be scientifically measurable.

Researchers are starting to explore exactly why pets make us happy and can actually make us healthier. The body of research on the health benefits of the human-animal interaction is actually growing. Studies show that animals can lower stress levels and blood pressure, and more research is examining the implications for mental health, as well.

We are at a point where we can imagine a day in the not-so-distant future where, instead of a prescription for medication, a doctor may recommend a walk in a park with a furry friend.

If you actually have experience with pet therapy, what changes have you seen in people and in the animals, if you have? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, Rush Limbaugh's comments about a Georgetown University law student set off a national conversation that isn't even close to fading yet. We will explore the question of just what nerve, exactly, did he touch.

But first, NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner joins us now in Studio 3A. Her piece on pet therapy ran yesterday on MORNING EDITION. And Julie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Thank you, nice to be here.

DONVAN: And I'm sure lots of people believe that their dogs or cats make them feel better. We have pets because we are happy around pets. But until recently, there wasn't a lot of science behind this concept. What's changed in that regard?

ROVNER: This is really a field that started in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And in the last couple of years, it's actually been picked up by the National Institutes of Health. And I should add that this is, sort of, something unique to the NIH because it's being co-funded by the Mars pet food company. So it's a real public-private partnership.

But there is a burgeoning interest, now, to look at the science behind what it is about, not just pets, but all animals, because there's sort of - there's two different things. And of course, they don't like the term pet therapy, even though that seems to be fairly widely used. It's sort of animal-assisted activity, is really what they call it in their sort of - it's really human-animal interaction research is the umbrella term.

But there's what happens with - between people and their pets, and then there's also animals used for therapy. And in the story I did yesterday, one of the things I went and looked at was equine therapy, using horses. And they used horses both for therapy for people with disabilities - in this case it was a child with autism - but also they use them for adults with both physical and mental disabilities.

And they also use horses just to help people overcome some - people with mental disabilities, emotional problems, and then also people with just physical disabilities, who just learn to ride, and that helps them overcome their physical problems. And again, those are things that are not necessarily those people's pets, but they're using the animals as an actual co-therapist.

DONVAN: So it sounds like we need to take the word pet out of this as the - as specifically pets is part of it, but it's some sort of human-animal interaction that seems to have benefits for humans. And I just - to focus in on the example you just talked about, about a child with autism and a horse or a person with a mental disability riding a horse is helping them with those disabilities. But what would we see? What is the outcome of a session or several sessions?

And I'm assuming you're talking about riding the horse, or are you talking about just being around the animal?

ROVNER: Well, there - one of the things they found is that there can be benefits in both cases. In talking about this, I happen to own a horse - one of the reasons I was kind of comfortable going and doing this. And there has been evidence that - you know, sometimes I find that there are days that I don't ride, I just go, and I hang out with my horse, and I clean his stall, and I clean him, and, you know, we'll have a spa day.

And it's been - there's been research that just being around the animal can help have physiologic benefits to the human. So it's not just riding. Of course, in some of the equine therapy, the actual physical part of the riding can have benefits also.

The child that I was with, this was actually a language therapy issue that yes, the child was riding, but he was working with a speech therapist. And what the speech therapist was saying is that she used to work with this child in a regular office setting, but when he's riding, she gets so much better attention from him, and, you know, he's so busy with what he's doing and riding that she gets much more cognitive work from him. He's so much more in the moment.

And he also happens to be a really good rider. I was really amazed.


DONVAN: And is the therapist, the speech therapist, is she on foot, is she on another horse?

ROVNER: No, she's on foot, and there's two people helping to make sure he stays on the horse. They're called side-walkers, so two people with him. But at one point, they took the saddle off, and he was riding bareback, which gives you a whole different feel, if you've ever ridden a horse - between riding with a saddle and riding bareback. So it's helping in different ways.

But, you know, you could see what she was getting in terms of this ongoing conversation with him, asking him what he wanted to do. There were cones in the arena that he could ride around. You know, do you want to do the cones, or do you want to walk? Do you want to trot? You know, she was asking him, and he was responding, and it was really very impressive to watch.

DONVAN: Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is And we want to hear from you. If you have experienced the benefits of this sort of therapy, this human-animal connection, which has some kind of good outcome, some sort of growth or healing on the human side and maybe even on the animal side, give us a call, we'd like to hear from you.

And let's go now actually to Stacy(ph) in South Bend, Indiana. Hi, Stacy, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

STACY: Hi, how are you today?

DONVAN: Good, thank you.

STACY: Good. I used to do educational programs in schools and for private events and preschools and things like that with a number of animals. Somehow, living here in South Bend, Notre Dame and St. Mary's, there are multiple facilities here. And somehow, an activities lady at one of the retirement communities for some of the sisters in our area called me and asked me to bring some animals to their facility. And that became something that I was doing at lots of facilities.

And they had - you know, some of the sisters had been in the facility, had not spoken, you know, unless - other than for the, you know, to say what they're having for a meal or something like that. They just weren't very interactive. And I used to take a number of animals, farm animals...

DONVAN: Which kinds of animals?

STACY: I had llamas. Originally, I was asked to bring - one of the sisters - it was one of the sisters' birthdays, and I was originally asked to bring a horse or a pony because she remembered growing up on a farm and hadn't seen any farm animals or horses for so long.

But, you know, I would take a variety of things, and sometimes on inclement days, I would take rabbits and snakes and other, even stranger, kinds of animals.

DONVAN: So Stacy, describe to me the change in the room when the animals arrive.

STACY: It's amazing. Sometimes, they're - you know, normally, there would be one or two of the ladies who would be very interactive, very - right away. But slowly, you know, through that process of taking the animal from person to person or room to room, you'd get a little more interest and a little more conversation.

And then the memories would come. Then the stories would come. Then everyone was laughing and engaging, and it was always so heartwarming to go. You know, most of the time those were volunteer things, and I loved to go. It was never a burden for me to make time in my schedule, because it was so rewarding to watch them bring them out.

DONVAN: Thanks, Stacy, for your call.

STACY: Thank you.

DONVAN: I want to see what - yeah, Julie, does that all sound familiar to you?

ROVNER: It does. You know, one of the people I interviewed for this story is a psychologist who works with children. And he said, you know, he mostly works with dogs, but he also - he said he had a cockatoo and a - I think it was a bearded dragon and, you know, a lot of different animals - a gerbil - and, you know, he would use different animals for different children to get, sort of, different reactions.

You know, some people respond to different animals for different reasons. You know, we mostly think about dogs in these therapy settings, and you see dogs, increasingly, in nursing homes, in hospitals, in schools in these situations. And we now have, you know, if you have a dog, you can get a therapy dog certification to make sure that the dog will be good with, you know, with all kinds of different people.

DONVAN: Forgive my mammalian bias, but when I hear bearded dragon - which is essentially a kind of, you know, mid-sized lizard - I don't think warm and fuzzy because they may be warm, but they're not fuzzy. And so I find it very curious that a bearded dragon is something that would have a positive reaction, only maybe because I'm anthropomorphizing. I'm thinking that they're communicating with each other.

Is it about communication with the animals, or does - in fact, let me put it more directly: Do we know why the presence of animals has this uplifting effect on people?

ROVNER: Well, that's one of the - in some cases - I think in the case of the bearded dragon, he was using it to elicit a talking response and to get the - to encourage the children to talk. But there have also been studies about fish tanks. There's a reason that you see aquariums in dentists' office, for instance.

There have been a lot of studies about the presence of fish tanks and fish. So it's not just necessarily being able to just pet the animal. And as I said, there have been studies now about people, you know, just having interaction, just looking at animals, or a study about just gazing back and forth with an animal. So it doesn't have to be warm and fuzzy.

DONVAN: Does it have to be alive? And here's what I'm asking: if it's something that's happening through perception that the human has towards the animal, what if - you know, if there's a fish tank full of plastic fish that are convincingly fish-like-looking enough that you actually think they are fish, or a robot dog.

But I'm asking this question in a serious way. Is it about an interaction at some visceral level between two creatures, or is it just the perception that there's an interesting object over there that requires lots of attention?

ROVNER: That's a good question. I don't know about, you know, maybe some of the Disney animatronic, you know, animals that, you know, that you might think is alive. I suppose that's a good question to pose to a researcher.

DONVAN: Well, we're going to be joined in a moment by a researcher. Rebecca Johnson is the director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri's Sinclair School of Nursing. And we have just about a minute before we go to the break. But Rebecca, why don't you join the conversation right now. And if you can put it in about 45 seconds, answer the question: do we really know, at bottom, why we have these positive interactions with animals, why we have this good effect, literally, on our health?

REBECCA JOHNSON: We're beginning to know that. In fact, when we interact with animals, we receive stimuli in the visual sense, in the olfactory sense - we can sniff them. We often can touch them, we can't in the case of fishes. But we can also hear. And so receiving those stimuli from all of those sensory inputs enables us to have this release of beneficial neural hormones in our brain.

And this is what stimulates the bond that we feel with the animals, and it's - also what stimulates the beneficial effects.

DONVAN: Well, we know that you're actually doing various kinds of experiments, and we want to hear the details of those. And we also want to hear from more of our listeners about your experiences with this kind of human-animal interaction, where there's actually health, or healing, as a result. If you had that kind of experience, share it with us.

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And we'll be back right after this break. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. Our pets not only make us happier, research tells us, they can also make us healthier. In one study, researchers encouraged participants to walk more by pairing them up with a therapy dog. Many of them stuck with the walking, and they lost weight in the process.

And the most common reason cited for getting out and walking: The participants said that the dogs, quote, "need us to walk them. If we won't exercise for ourselves, it appears we may be willing to do it for pets, even if they're not our own pets."

We are talking today about the benefits of this kind of pet therapy, although it's bigger than pet therapy, both to us and to the animals. If you have any experience with this kind of therapy, what changes have you seen in people or in the animals?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We have two guests: NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner, whose report on pet therapy ran yesterday on MORNING EDITION, and you can listen to that at

And also joining us just before the break, Rebecca Johnson, she directs the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri's Sinclair School of Nursing. And she co-wrote the book "Walk A Hound, Lose a Pound" with Phil Zeltzman.

And Rebecca, I mentioned that you're actually running various kinds of experiments, and when I say experiments, I mean formal experiments where you make an application for a grant, and ultimately you'll publish in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. So it's that kind of science. So talk to us about some of the work that you're doing, the kinds of experimentation you're working on to understand why it is that animals make us happy.

JOHNSON: We found in our dog walking studies that people were very willing to walk a dog because they wanted to commit to helping the dog. In the first study that you just described a minute ago, we found that people were very, very willing because they wanted to help these animals, but the animals were actually employees of our study and were walking quite a lot. So they really didn't need the extra walking.

In subsequent studies, however, we found that people who walk shelter dogs were highly willing to stick with it because they knew that these shelter dogs needed the exercise, and then they were benefitting themselves.

In a study that was funded by Waltham Foundation, we had older adults walking shelter dogs five days a week for 12 weeks, and those older adults, compared with groups who walked with either a human companion or family member or didn't walk, had significantly increased walking speed. And walking speed is important for older people because it means that they're able to remain independent, they have their balance.

So this was a very important finding for us. And subsequent studies that we're doing with - on dog-walking demonstrate that people really are willing to walk because they think the dog needs them. This was the basis of our book. It's a consumer's guide to making dog walking as pleasant and wonderful as humanly possible and dog possible. And so we want to aim at both ends of the leash when we do this kind of research.

DONVAN: You know, I can see with clarity how walking a dog results in weight loss and how weight loss is good for you. I'm also intrigued, though, by some less mechanically obvious impacts, such as improvement, for example, of Iraq war veterans who may be suffering from PTSD. And you're finding that there's actually an improvement in their symptoms when they're in a program where they're working with therapy dogs. Tell me about that.

JOHNSON: That's right. In this project, this one again is funded by Waltham, we are engaging returned U.S. military veterans in training these shelter dogs in basic obedience. And the veterans are finding it highly rewarding. They're finding it very stress-relieving to come and work with those dogs for an hour twice a week.

The dogs are gaining in their obedience skills. So we're helping these animals become more adoptable. And in fact they're actually being adopted right out of the program. When people go to the shelter and see that a dog can do the sit or the down or the stay, they're quite intrigued, and they want to adopt that animal.

So the veterans are receiving these benefits. They're also bonding with each other in the class and providing a support source for each other.

DONVAN: And do we know why that's something that's happening with animals, and it wouldn't just happen with a group of guys getting together, for example?

JOHNSON: These animals love the veterans unconditionally. If you see them interacting with the dogs, they have to give the animal the positive reinforcement. At first, I'll be honest, they started out by saying good dog. We had to show them how to give positive reinforcement to a dog so that it responds well: Good dog, good girl.

And the veterans have gradually unfrozen and really have risen to the occasion where they're interacting with these dogs. They also sit on the floor and interact with the dogs before and after the sessions. And it's - you can see them relaxing and really enjoying themselves.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Mark(ph) from Fremont, California. Hi, Mark, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK: Hi, how are you doing?

DONVAN: Good, thanks.

MARK: I am from Fremont. I breed ball pythons. I have about 166 now. And I'll have friends come over, girls and men, and they will be stressed out, come in, they'll handle my snakes. Ball pythons are very slow-moving, docile snake. And after a half-hour or an hour, you can just, you know, feel your stress reduce and your blood pressure drop, and they're just very - the way they move is so slow, and they just have a very calming effect on people that handle them.

DONVAN: Oh, really?

MARK: (unintelligible) And I was curious if, you know, different animals have different effects? Is your research going to delve into, maybe, a different prescription for different ailments type thing?

DONVAN: And Mark, to narrow your question even more, you're sort of suggesting that the style of the animals' movement - and it's different from animal to animal - that the style of the movement or the textual experience may actually have different kinds of therapeutic effects. Am I right? Is that what you're asking? It's really interesting.

MARK: Yeah, I would think that (unintelligible) different medicines, you know.

DONVAN: Yeah, yeah, what about that, Rebecca Johnson?

JOHNSON: Well, it's a very interesting question. You know, Mark, I think that people respond to animals in different ways. Some people don't like dogs. Some people don't like cats. So what we know is, of course, if you have a negative feeling about a particular animal, you're probably not going to benefit from that interaction.

But there is clearly one study where people did receive those kinds of benefits from interacting with their snakes, and so I think, you know, if you're positively disposed or have an open mind, sure, it might be beneficial for you to interact with a snake.

DONVAN: Thanks, Mark, for your call. Let's bring in Robert from Cincinnati, Ohio.

ROBERT: And the host sort of alluded to this with the guys just being around each other, but I wonder whether in our culture, the lack of intimacy and affection and touching among human to human animal may - this may fill that void and whether there should be greater emphasis on people holding hands or being closer together or whether there are boundary issues that may speak to issues in therapy or in a Puritanical culture.

DONVAN: Rebecca?

JOHNSON: Well, that's a very interesting point. And I think we do need to raise it. You know, we have a very high-tech, low-touch society these days. I see that in my undergraduate students who are more comfortable communicating by text messaging with their thumbs than when I tell them they have to sit together in a small group and have a class discussion. They say they'd rather text each other.

So I think our tendency has been to get away from high-tech, high-touch, and this is really why animals are so effective in bridging that gap because generally, animals are quite accepting and unconditionally loving, and this is one of the things that we find with our veterans and also in the prison population that we're working with, that these animals are just giving positive reinforcement almost all of the time that the interaction is taking place.

And let's face it, most of us all need a little more unconditional love.

DONVAN: Let me ask you - and thanks very much for your call, Robert. Before the break, Julie and I were talking about - I was asking Julie the question of whether the animal actually has to be an animal. You know, and the reason - what I'm thinking of is kids really can connect to a stuffed animal, for example.

And I'm wondering if it's just merely the perception of an animal or the creature being there that's important. You know, could a robot dog be created that would provide the same sort of impact? Or is there actually something physically natural going on and some sort of exchange between two creatures, pheromones or something like that?

JOHNSON: Well, it's clear that there are pheromone exchanges all the time when people and animals interact. There have been some studies, very nicely done studies, looking at robotic dogs and people interacting with them, and there have been some positive results.

The clincher for me is, though, that the animal is providing feedback to us on an almost continuous basis. We don't get that when we try to exercise on a treadmill. When I find that I've been on the treadmill already for 15 minutes, and it says I've only burned 49 calories, I don't find that highly motivating to continue.

However, when I'm out walking with a dog, the dog gives positive regard continually, is interacting with the environment, and we can actually interact with the environment even through the dog by seeing how - what they're looking at, what they're sniffing. They may flush a bird.

It's a positive affirmation that we just don't get from mechanical sources.

DONVAN: We have a fascinating question from an emailer, who writes - Amon(ph), who writes: Do we actually have to be in the room with the animal to see any benefits? I ask because I am a cat-owner, but I also get a lot of pleasure out of just watching YouTube cat movies.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, I think there are benefits of watching videos. We see there are also negative effects of watching videos. But the best part of interacting with a companion animal in a sort of real sense - meaning when you're in the room with them or when you can see them - is you do have some exchange, when they notice you and you notice them. You may even just enjoy watching them sleep.

And there has been a very good study that demonstrated that oxytocin increased when a person even exchanged gaze with a dog. And so this is a powerful effect. There is a very good study that was conducted in Sweden regarding this, that the interaction with human and their dog produced the same oxytocin increases as when a new mother interacts with her baby for the first time, in a breast feeding context. So these are very powerful exchanges that occur when we have these neurochemicals released.

DONVAN: Julie Rovner, you also wrote about oxytocin. Are these the same studies that you're talking about, or did you see it more broadly?

ROVNER: Yes. These are the studies. No, these are the studies.

DONVAN: OK. I want to go now to Barbara in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Barbara. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.


DONVAN: Hi. Hi, you're on the air.

BARBARA: OK. My name is Barbara Sinclair(ph), and I'm calling as a member of Delta's Pet Partners. I've been active - and my dog - for the last number of years - seven to nine, actually. And I shared a story about the use of the animal for classroom assistance with motor activities, helping to facilitate speech and language and modeling good listening, waiting and turn-taking, especially in preschool special needs programs, which he took an active part in for six years.

We also had a great summer experience in an augmentative communication camp with nonverbal children ages five through 16. And in that case, he had to learn to be a better listener because he was taking commands from the children who were activating their touch talkers to tell him to sit down, stay, leave or come. And this was a very different mode of communication for the dog. One, the human voice and the intonation was changed from the regular human voice to an automated voice, you know, of the talker. And so the interaction was quite interesting over that five-week period.

DONVAN: And it's all for real. You're seeing it happen?

BARBARA: I'm seeing it happen.


BARBARA: I'm seeing that, you know, the rewarding part is just incredible, you know, for the children.

DONVAN: Well, thanks - thanks...

JOHNSON: Thank you for your work, Barbara.

DONVAN: Yeah. Thank you very much, Barbara, for your call. And the reason I ask whether Barbara experiences it all for real is that Julie Rovner, who did the report for NPR, and is our guest here as well, also brought to my attention an article by Harold Herzog at Western Carolina University, who takes a very skeptical view of some of this work. And he wrote - published a piece in which he says because of extensive media coverage, it is now widely believed that pets enhance their owners' health and sense of psychological well-being and longevity.

But while some researchers have reported that positive effects accrue from interacting with animals, others have found that the health and happiness of pet owners is no better and in some cases worse than that of non-pet owners. Julie, what about Harold Herzog?

ROVNER: Well, certainly there have been, you know - obviously not every study is going to come out positively, and I think that's why that this research - why it's so important for this research to continue. I think that the gist of his article is that this - as he said, this is a hypothesis that has yet to be proved. And I think that's why you have - why it's so important that this has gone now to the National Institutes of Health and why there's so much research going on about this, because they want to see what is the scientific basis for this. There are lots of people doing lots of studies, and the goal now, I think, is to find out what exactly it is. You know, someone - I think it was Barbara Boxer - the other day, talking about something else, said the plural of anecdote is not data.


ROVNER: So you see a lot of this, but I think that there's a lot of researchers now who would like to find out why it is and what it is...

DONVAN: Right.

ROVNER: ...and, you know, some of the questions we've been asking. Does it - does the animal have to be in the room? Does it have to be a real animal?


ROVNER: What is it that makes this happen?

DONVAN: The anecdotes are piling up. Here's one. We just received an email from Lisa, who writes: I am a recovering alcoholic. And I remember a night when I was terribly tempted to drink, and my oldest and most loyal cat put one paw on my forehead and one paw on my chin. And I sighed and let myself work through the temptation because I truly felt she was trying to convey a message to me.

That - you know, we had Lassie at the beginning with that wisdom we wish animals had. That certainly sounded like a wise cat, or at least whatever happened there happened at the right time. Rebecca Johnson, you were talking about actually doing a study in which kids who are being interviewed by the police in cases of child abuse are - that a dog is being introduced into the room or into the situation to ease their experience. That study - is that study now under way?

JOHNSON: Yes, it is, John. That study is funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Development through the MARS-NIH public-private partnership. And it's a wonderful thing that we now, in this field, have these funds. And I would like to just refer back to the comments regarding Hal's(ph) positive theory, that of course in any field the research has to grow, and this field is no different.

And thankfully, we do have some additional funding available now to grow this field in highly credible scientific ways. And that's what it's all about. That's what we're working toward. We don't want our field to be totally based on anecdotes. Anecdotes provide great illustration. They provide richness, but they aren't the evidence. And we always want our, particularly in health care, our work to be evidence-based. So...

DONVAN: All right. Jezebel(ph) in Fernley, Nevada, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.



JEZEBEL: Good afternoon.

DONVAN: Good afternoon.

JEZEBEL: I'll keep it short, but I've got a cute little story. Many years ago, about nine years ago, I was in a horrible accident and broke my neck. And I was a very active person, grew up on a horse ranch. And through my surgeries I became paralyzed from the waist down and was in a wheelchair for about eight months. And the doctors had me so heavily medicated, most days I didn't even care to get out of bed. As months progressed and I was weaning myself out of my walker, it was still so much easier to take all the medication and lay in bed. It's like I lost my will. I just didn't care anymore. And I was given a little miniature pygmy goat.

DONVAN: Jezebel, I need you to get to the end of the story. I'm sorry. We're almost out of time. Did you say goat?

JEZEBEL: Goat, a miniature pygmy goat that probably weighed about 20 pounds. Now, at this point it wasn't about me anymore. It was about this little goat. And boy, let me tell you, if I didn't let this goat out every couple of hours to go to the bathroom, oh my goodness, she just raised a ruckus. This little...

DONVAN: That's an anecdote, but Jezebel, I'm afraid we have to stop. And it's an anecdote, but it's a beautiful one. Thanks very much for sharing with us. And we thank our guests Rebecca Johnson and Julie Rovner.

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