Pet, Health Benefits of Having a (cont.)

Birds have been used as service animals too, especially with older adults, to make them feel less lonely and more comfortable in their lives, providing a psychological support. We are experimenting here at Purdue using robotic dogs (the Sony AIBO) with older adults who live in facilities that do not allow dogs.

"People who experience a strong sense of loss after losing an animal should seek human support."

A good general review of our relationship with animals is found in the book Between Pets and People, The Importance of Animal Companionship, available from Purdue University Press, 1-800-247-6553. The Purdue website is www.vet.purdue.edu/chab.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My parents both had dogs. When my father died, his dog was heartbroken and wouldn't leave my mother's side. When her dog died, she had a
heart attack. Can you comment on both sides of the relationship when either an owner or a pet dies?

BECK:
The loss of an animal is a very stressful experience for many people, more and more social workers and psychologists are sensitive and available for help. Society is beginning to recognize this is a legitimate concern.

There is no direct evidence that there is an association between the death of a pet and the death of the owner, or vice versa, though to be sure, pet loss can be very stressful for an older, failing person. Almost all dogs can recover from the loss of an owner and find comfort with new people. More and more programs will take care of an animal if the owners die and there is no one in the family who can take the animal.

People who really experience a strong sense of loss after losing an animal should feel free to seek human support and search out some of the many excellent books that are out there.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Can you talk about dogs trained to visit in nursing homes?

BECK:
It is now common for many nursing homes to have animal programs, knowing that visitations or a resident animal enriches the nursing home environment. It has been estimated that better than 65 percent of nursing homes have some kind of animal contact program.

Many nursing homes keep fish tanks, birds and bird feeders for that purpose, and many nursing homes have visitors that bring animals. The visitations encourage people to be more active, to have some touch contact and it actually improves human interactions between nursing home residents and the nursing home staff and residents.

Older people visited by a dog often reminisce about their own life's experiences with animals. These visitations often encourage family visitors to open up and talk more, in part because talking about animals is so encouraging and so comforting.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Have you studied about having a dog around children to help them develop immunity to allergies?

BECK:
There's now considerable evidence that one of the protections against being allergic to many of life's antigens is early exposure, and children raised in families with animals are actually less likely to have allergies and asthma as they grow older.

It is interesting to note that our view of what causes allergies is still very debated. There are studies showing that allergists who are themselves animal owners are much less likely to advise people to get rid of their animals when their children show signs of allergy or asthma.

Perhaps these animal-owning physicians appreciate the positive aspects of animal contact for young people. If fur or feathers are a major problem for a family member, there is support systems that help children enjoy furless pets, such as the amphibians, frogs and fish.

MODERATOR:
Animals can play such an important role in a child's life.

BECK:
Pets are actually more common in families with young children than not; we intuitively know animals are important to child development.

For children, animals teach responsibility and compassion. They can be a best friend, a source of learning about life, and are often the first exposure to death, which is still important for children to understand.

"Animals are a major way young people learn empathy and nurturing behaviors."

Gail Nelson, here at Purdue, points out that animals are a major way young people learn empathy and nurturing behaviors, which is especially important for male children in our society, because male children do not have any nurture games, such as playing house or dolls, and in fact, consider caring a sissy activity, except animals. Animal care is considered perfectly acceptable for all genders and all ages. So for young boys, it may be their first experience for being rewarded for being a nurturer.

The other major role animals play for young people is being their nonjudgmental friend -- 97 percent of people talk to their dogs and cats. Three percent lied, as almost everyone talks to their dogs and cats!