More than 70 years ago researchers found that stroking a dog lowers the dog’s blood pressure. However, it wasn’t until 1984 that scientists learned the blood pressure also decreased in the person petting the dog. Others reported a positive correlation between pets and their owners’ cholesterol and triglyceride levels. There were also symptomatic indications of anxiety and stress relief in people who owned pets. From these meager beginnings exploded the field now known as Human-Animal Interaction. Marty Becker, D.V.M., author of The Healing Power of Pets, which details this field, simply refers to it as The Bond. Once skeptical physicians and scientists are now discovering the remarkable power of animals to detect disease and provide healing in a host of medical and emotional conditions. Many doctors are even “prescribing” pets as part of combinatorial therapy for their patients.

One of the most outward signs of the field’s validity is the creation of the nation’s first Center for Human-Animal Interaction in the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. Sandra Barker, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, directs the center. She says, “It’s has been my dream come true. We have faculty from all parts of the school participating, including gerontology, the business school, addiction psychiatry, and epidemiology. There are so many people interested in this area.” She also holds an adjunct appointment at the Center for animal-human relationships at Virginia Tech’s veterinary school. Many veterinary schools now have departments devoted to this area of research. The American Association of Medical Colleges reported last year that, of the 125 US medical schools in the United States, 76 offer courses in complementary and alternative medicine as part of their required curriculum. Even more government funds are becoming available to study alternative medicine, the category in which animal-human interaction falls.

The number of organizations whose mission is the promotion and celebration of the human-animal bond are rapidly increasing. The Delta Society, the first known group established in 1977, promotes awareness of the positive effects animals have in people’s lives, in addition to expanding the roles of animals in human health, education and therapy.

Merial, the world’s leading animal pharmaceutical company, recently created PAWSitive InterAction, a first of its kind non-profit community alliance of Atlanta’s premier animal organizations. “The foundling members of PAWSitive InterAction are bound together by a common commitment to promote and celebrate the positive impact of the human-animal bond,” says Nalini Saligram, Ph.D., Merial Corporate Communications Director. The alliance includes the Atlanta Humane Society, Happy Tails Pet Therapy, Zoo Atlanta, and Pets are Loving Support (P.A.L.S.).

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