STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So antibiotics may not always be good for your health. Owning a pet can be. Research suggests that your interaction with a pet can help you live longer, as NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
MEREDITH DALY: So this is the Children's Inn. Welcome.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Meredith Daly works at the Children's Inn on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. It houses the families of children who are undergoing experimental therapies. The idea is to make the inn feel like an actual home. And one of the ways they do that is by having a resident dog. Meet Viola, or Vi for short.
DALY: Oh, she's giving you kisses.
ROVNER: Tonight, Vi is acting as the canine chaperone for about a half a dozen kids and parents in the inn's learning center. There's a lesson going on at the work table, but four-year-old Thelma Balmaceda is much more interested in Vi, who's sprawled on her back on the floor, wanting a belly rub.
Do you like the dog?
THELMA BALMACEDA: Yeah. I have a dog in my house.
ROVNER: What's your doggie's name?
ROVNER: Vi, who's a retired seeing-eye dog, has been a tremendous addition to the staff, says Daly. But Vi may well be doing more than just bringing smiles to the faces of stressed out parents and children.
Aubrey Fine says dogs like Vi have helped launch an entirely new field of medical research over the past three decades or so. He's a child psychologist and professor at Cal State Polytech University in Pomona, California.
AUBREY FINE: An animals' presence can reduce a person's stress level.
ROVNER: Fine uses a variety of animals, including dogs, birds and even a lizard in his own practice. While he says animals have been used to help patients dating back to the 1800s, it's only in the past few decades that scientists have been able to pinpoint how exactly they help.
For example, one of the first studies found that petting a dog can help reduce blood pressure in people with heart disease. And now several universities have centers that study human-animal relationships.
Rebecca Johnson is a nurse who heads the one at the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine.
REBECCA JOHNSON: The research evidence on the benefits of human-animal interaction for people is very compelling now.
ROVNER: She says one of the most important discoveries has been that interacting with an animal increases a person's level of the hormone oxytocin. That's good because oxytocin helps people feel happy and trusting. But that's not all.
JOHNSON: Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in promoting the body's ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.
ROVNER: So being around animals clearly has health benefits. But animals can also act as therapists themselves.
CATHY COLEMAN: OK. Ryan let's go. Ready, up, down.
ROVNER: Nine-year-old Ryan Shank-Rowe has autism. Today he's working with a special therapist, a large speckled gray pony named Happy at the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program.
COLEMAN: Happy has stopped and we need her to go.
RYAN SHANK-ROWE: Walk on.
ROVNER: Cathy Coleman is Ryan's speech therapist. She used to see Ryan in an office. But as she jogs alongside Happy, Coleman says that the horseback riding actually helps Ryan talk more.
COLEMAN: I get greater engagement, greater alertness, more language, more processing, all those things.
ROVNER: And Ryan's mother, Donna Shank, says riding has helped with more than just speech.
DONNA SHANK: It's helped his following directions, some really core life skills about, you know, getting dressed and balance - which really translates to a lot of safety issues, too.
SHANK-ROWE: Down, up.
COLEMAN: Keep it going, buddy. Keep it going.
SHANK-ROWE: Down, up.
ROVNER: But sometimes it's not just people who benefit. Rebecca Johnson says some of the research is focused on the other end of the leash.
JOHNSON: We want to know how the animals are benefitting from the exchange.
ROVNER: For example, Johnson has studied volunteers who walk dogs at animal shelters. Those programs have clearly helped people get healthier, she says, but they've helped the dogs at the same time.
JOHNSON: They were significantly more likely to be adopted if they were in the dog walking group.
ROVNER: Johnson's now working on a new project with likely benefits for dogs and humans. Military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are providing shelter dogs with basic obedience training. And while it's still early in the research, she says, one thing seems pretty clear.
JOHNSON: Helping the animals is helping the veterans to readjust to being at home.
ROVNER: Now the field is about to get another big scientific boost. The National Institutes of Health recently established the first-ever program to fund human-animal interaction research. That could mean meaning that sometime in the not too distant future, rather than writing a prescription for a medication, your doctor may tell you to go pet your dog instead - or your cat.
Julie Rovner, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: And that's Your Health for this Monday morning.
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