How Pets Help People

Studies point to the physical and emotional benefits of our relationships with other species
a child kissing a dog
“There’s been some research showing that just stroking an animal reduces your blood pressure and heart rate,” says Megan Kiely Mueller. Photo: Depositphotos
January 11, 2016


Janelle Casson says it never gets any easier when her husband deploys as a U.S. Army combat engineer. But after four tours of duty in the last 12 years—assignments ranging from a year to 15 months each in Iraq—she and her four children eventually fall into a well-learned routine. “You have a muscle memory of how it feels to be without him and what we all need to do to keep moving forward,” she says.

Even Ebony, the family’s 9-year-old Scottish terrier-schnauzer mix, takes the deployments hard, moping about the house and keeping to herself. “It takes a couple of weeks for her to come to terms with the fact that dad is not here,” says Casson, of Killeen, Texas. Ebony inevitably forgoes her normal bed in the master bedroom to seek comfort sleeping alongside one of the children.

Fourteen-year-old Elijah, the oldest, is the main support for the dog, which joined the family when the boy was 5. “He’s been Ebony’s primary caretaker” whenever his father is away, says Casson. “He feeds her and takes her on walks. He just fell into the role of taking care of her, much the way [many military] kids fall into other typically dad roles when they’re gone.”

Ebony is probably helping Elijah, too. Recent Tufts University research finds that a strong relationship with a pet is associated with better coping skills in children who are managing the stress of having a parent deployed. The study came out of the new Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI), which seeks to discover exactly how animals help us better handle physical and emotional stress, commit to fitness and educational goals, overcome physical disabilities and recover from psychological trauma.

Animals have been a part of our lives for thousands of years. We started keeping company with them as soon as we realized that dogs could help us hunt, cats would exterminate the rodents pilfering our grain stores and horses offered transportation.

But that’s not the whole story. Why do we continue to embrace these domesticated animals like members of our family, even though they no longer fulfill our pragmatic needs? The new Tufts institute, launched earlier this year, is examining the importance of our relationships with other species. But instead of working in the traditional silos of fields such as veterinary medicine, human medicine and psychology, TIHAI draws on faculty, staff and students from myriad areas of expertise.

“We bring together all these different disciplines to put some sound evidence behind what we intuitively know is true: animals can enhance our lives in so many ways,” says Lisa Freeman, J86, V91, N96, a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine who directs the institute.

Steadfast Friends

For the study of military children, Megan Kiely Mueller, A08, G10, G13, a developmental psychologist and a research assistant professor at Cummings School, and Kristina Schmid Callina, a research assistant professor in Tufts’ Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, surveyed nearly 600 kids from military and nonmilitary families about their interactions with animals in the household and their stress levels and coping strategies. The study, funded by the animal health company Zoetis and the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts, was published in Applied Developmental Science in October 2014.

Conducted in partnership with the Military Child Education Coalition, the study “found that animal ownership was linked to a host of positive outcomes” in all the kids, whether they had a parent deployed or not, says Mueller, co-associate director of TIHAI and a senior fellow at Tisch College.

Animal ownership was linked to a host of positive outcomes in all the kids, whether they had a parent deployed or not, says Megan Kiely Mueller.Children who had formed bonds with companion animals were more confident and had stronger relationships with their families and peers. Many said their pet keeps them company when a parent is deployed or serves as an oasis of stability when their family moves to a new home.

Most significantly, the researchers found that among the kids with deployed parents those who enjoyed a strong human-animal bond had greater coping mechanisms than those who didn’t. “Strong attachments to pets may foster a more proactive attitude about handling stressful problems and could serve as a bridge to developing and maintaining peer relationships during stressful circumstances,” says Mueller.

As Mueller’s previous research has underscored, the quality and strength of the attachment between children and their pets are what’s most important. “Pets provide a nonjudgmental, emotionally supportive relationship, especially for kids who may be having difficulty in social situations or moving to a new social setting,” she says. “The responsibility of caring for another living creature and understanding an animal’s needs also plays a role.”

There’s also likely a physiological component to why pets make us feel better during unhappy times, she adds. “There’s been some research showing [that] just stroking an animal reduces your blood pressure and heart rate.”

The Human-Animal Connection

Researchers on all three Tufts campuses are working on studies to assess those emotional and physiological benefits.

Deborah Linder, V09, co-associate director of TIHAI, is heading up the university’s participation in the American Humane Association’s Canines and Childhood Cancer project, funded by Zoetis and the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative. As part of a multihospital investigation about the effects of animal-assisted therapy, Tufts’ Paws for People therapy-dog teams visit pediatric oncology patients and their families at UMass Medical Center in Worcester.

“What’s so special about this study is that we are looking not just at the kids but at the parents and therapy animals, too,” says Linder. The psychological state of children and parents who receive a 20-minute visit with a therapy dog will be compared with that of families who do not receive therapy-dog visits. Physical effects, such as heart rate and blood pressure, also will be assessed in the children.

Another hot area of investigation at Tufts is how animal-health challenges can attract more girls and other traditionally underrepresented groups to careers in science and technology. “We know that animals are a great way to engage kids and young adults in different activities,” including science, technology, engineering and math subjects, says Chris Rogers, a professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of Tufts’ Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.

Rogers, a member of TIHAI’s board of advisors, has worked with Cummings School veterinarians to get middle school students involved in developing engineering solutions to problems in veterinary medicine, such as helping a paralyzed dachshund get around.

Understanding how animals may encourage participation in healthy pursuits as well as educational activities could have public health value, says Rogers. He points to ongoing research at Cummings School and Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy about how pets may help prevent childhood obesity.

A Little Animal TLC

Linder, a veterinary nutritionist at Cummings School, and experts from the Friedman School are examining the potential for animals to be partners in addressing the childhood obesity epidemic. The research will take them to Boston’s Museum of Science, where visiting families will be asked to complete a questionnaire about their attachment to their pet, family life in general and social supports.

“We will then invite people to come in for interviews so they can tell us more about their relationship with their pets,” Linder says. “What are the most positive aspects? What are the barriers and facilitators for having a joint physical activity program where you exercise with your pet?” She notes that “there’s some data in adults that suggests that people who are overweight are more attached to their pets and have less social support from their peers. If so, can our experts in pediatric nutrition and fitness, psychology and veterinary nutrition design a fitness program where dogs create the social network that encourages kids to exercise?”

Jennie Dapice Feinstein, J98, G05, a Tufts-trained occupational therapist, has seen firsthand the power of employing a therapy dog in her work helping children with physical or behavioral disabilities to build the skills needed to get through the day, be it getting dressed or eating a meal.

A boy she’s helping learn how to put on his shorts has limited range of motion, so the first step is getting him to lean over far enough to pull the pants over his feet, says Feinstein, who works at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. In traditional occupational therapy, she might ask the boy to try to touch his toes. But Feinstein says that “is not necessarily motivating.”

Instead, she asks the boy to fill a dog bowl with water, hold it in both hands and slowly lower it to the ground so her specially trained therapy dog, Norm, can drink. It’s a task the boy was eager to accomplish on behalf of the tail-wagging dog, and the boy’s desire to interact with and please Norm meant that he not only was able to touch his feet, but he also learned to pour—another therapeutic milestone.

“Whenever I incorporate an animal into a therapy plan, it seems a lot easier to achieve goals, because there’s some other form of motivation at work,” says Feinstein, who also has used therapy horses in her work with children.

Protecting Therapy Animals

Research conducted through the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction will help therapy animals, too.

For the Canines and Childhood Cancer study, researchers measure the therapy dogs’ cortisol levels—which rise with stress—and review video of the interactions between patients and the therapy dogs to look for behavioral cues that may indicate that interacting with nervous families increases the dogs’ anxiety. Although therapy animals may appear eager to go on visits, it is important to ensure the benefits for the children don’t have negative effects on the animals.

Horses “take on some of our fears and worries and help us work through them,” says Caroline McKinney, V16. Photo: IngimageAt Touchstone Farm, a nonprofit in Temple, New Hampshire, Mueller, the developmental psychologist, is working on two studies about equine-assisted therapy.

The first study assessed the well-being of horses in a therapeutic riding program for children, ages 8 to 14, with behavioral disorders. Horses are often incorporated into therapy because their intimidating size makes them good metaphors for the challenges or emotional baggage we carry.

The horses “take on some of our fears and worries and help us work through them,” notes Caroline McKinney, V16, who partnered with Mueller and Nicholas Frank, a professor of large animal internal medicine at Cummings School, on the study. “But then you worry about the effect on the horses. What is that doing to them, at least physiologically?”

Over six weeks, McKinney measured the cortisol levels of six horses during their rest days, regular workouts and therapeutic riding sessions. Designed to determine whether the horses were at risk for health problems caused by chronic stress, the study indicated that the horses “seem to be doing just fine,” says McKinney. The researchers hope to follow up with a larger study of horse welfare.

A second project at Touchstone, funded by the Horses and Humans in Research Foundation, is examining how employing horses as part of psychotherapy can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children. Therapists instruct the kids to interact with horses to demonstrate how the children’s body language and other physical cues influence the animals’ behavior.

“One of the symptoms of PTSD is being either hyper-aroused or under-aroused,” says Mueller, and the horses react to that—avoiding the jittery kids and ignoring those who are emotionally detached. In order to interact positively with their therapy horses, the children must learn to better regulate their own fight-or-flight response—by taking deep breaths and employing other techniques to lower their heart rate and relax their muscles.

“These horses have become such a resource to people,” from teenagers with autism to returning veterans with PTSD, says McKinney. “We want to make sure these special animals have the highest quality of life possible,” while generating the evidence that will allow these therapies to become mainstream treatments.

Insurance companies rarely cover equine-assisted therapy, typically only covering it when a horse is employed as platform for physical exercise that improves stability or range of motion. As a result, equine-assisted psychotherapy is often out of the financial reach of many, Mueller says.

The work of the institute may also lead to changes in public policy that don’t carry a price tag. “A lot of the military families say it’s difficult to move across state lines with a pet, because of various housing policies, trying to find a vet and other logistics,” says Mueller. “If we could help them navigate those issues, it would be a low-cost way to help military families maximize the many benefits we are finding in having a positive relationship with an animal.”

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at

This story first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Cummings Veterinary Medicine magazine.