Convention brings together experts on human-animal interaction

The magic solution for good health has four legs and a tail. It turns out that sharing your life with a pet is good for you.

"We know that there are positive neurochemical changes that occur by merely walking down the street and seeing a dog," says Rebecca Johnson, president of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO), the umbrella organization for over 40 associations and individual scientists who are doing the research to better understand human/animal relationships. IAHAIO is also made up of numerous organizations that conduct programs in hospitals, schools and elsewhere.

Every three years, scientists, leaders of organizations that offer animal-assisted therapy or other animal-related programs, veterinarians and other interested parties attend an international meeting to share the latest research in their fields. The next IAHAIO Conference will be in the U.S. for the first time, held in conjunction with the 150th Annual Convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association, July 19-23 in Chicago, IL.

Lots of previous studies have shown that living with a dog has numerous health benefits. In fact, merely petting a dog is beneficial.

"Don't forget cats," says Dennis Turner at the University of Zurich. Talking via Skype, he let the cat out of the bag. Turner's research demonstrates that cats can be therapeutic for clinically depressed individuals, likely even more so than dogs.

"Cats accept the amount of contact a person is ready to give," he says. "Cats do vocalize more, rub against people more, and tend to stay longer with individuals who may be depressed."

Dogs can be a tad more pushy in their demands for attention, and may want to go out for a walk, which can also be therapeutic. Rebecca Johnson, professor and director of research Center for Human Animal Interactions at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has studied the seemingly simple concept of dog-walking for several years now.

"We showed that when older adults walk shelter dogs, we measured a significant increase in their normal walking speed, improving their fitness. Of course, walking shelter dogs was wonderful for those dogs," says Johnson.

Johnson said colleagues from Australia will talk at the conference about their findings that demonstrate dog-walking also increases social capital.

"When people are out walking dogs, communities are perceived as safer, friendlier and better places to live," she says.

Turner also recently concluded an extensive study of 6,000 adults in a dozen countries (Brazil, China, England, France, Germany, India, Israel, Jordan, Singapore, Switzerland and the United Arab Emeritus) to learn about the relationship between religion and pet ownership, and general notions people have about pets in various nations. He questioned both pet owners and non-pet owners.

For instance, Turner's results demonstrate that the popular notion that Muslins disdain pets may be false.

"They don't want pets on their prayer rugs indoors, but overall, their feelings for pets were more favorable than some might have predicted," he says. Turner concedes that research in additional Arab countries might be worthwhile.

Jews and Christians ranked lowest when it came to agreeing that animals think as people do, Turner found.

"Likely, this goes back to the belief that man has dominion over animals," he suggests.

Turner's research demonstrated that people who identified themselves as Hindus and Buddhists were most "animal tolerant."

Dogs can make a difference in people's lives in unexpected ways.

Speaking via Skype from Ammerzoden, Netherlands, psychologist Dr. Marie-Jose Enders-Slegers says her study paired nearly 30 families with autistic children from ages 4 to 7 with a service dog.

"At this age, the children often begin to be bullied, but we noted this didn't happen. In fact, the dogs attracted friends, which seemed to force improvement in the social skills (of the autistic children)," says Enders-Slegers.

Autistic children often have tactile issues, not wanting to be touched or to touch others. Over time, Enders-Slegers noted that while some children wouldn't hug Mom, they eventually hugged the dogs, or at least petted them. The study also measured an increase in cognitive learning.

To unleash all the potential uses of pets in therapy settings, the science must come first.

"This conference is about sharing and discussing new information, creating new horizons," Johnson says.

About 150 people will present papers at the IAHAIO conference, which is open to the public. Over 800 people from around the globe are expected to attend, not to mention the thousands of veterinary professionals attending the AVMA convention. Learn more at http://www.iahaio.org or http://www.avma.org.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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