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Companion animals provide health benefits and influence their owners' well-being

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[swfobject]2445[/swfobject]Brittany Moore goes through the motions of tidying her room, folding her clean laundry neatly in order to fill the empty caverns of open drawers and closet space. A single dog leash hangs loosely on the doorknob of the open door, a reminder of the days when her therapy/family dog, Willard, romped through the house to see what everyone was up to, and the 6 am jaunts she took with Raphael, the Guiding Eyes for the Blind dog that she trained.

“I took the class, got certified to be a puppy raiser, and then picked up my first dog to raise in an Arby’s parking lot by Cortland,” Moore, a senior biology and animal science major at Cornell, says.

Moore’s experience is representative of the growing reliance on a new breed of pet: companion animals. In 2011, there were 69,926,000 companion dogs alone in the United States, according to the 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook. The human-animal interaction gained much national attention within the research community this past year, with the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations research conference held for the first time in the United States this July.

“We’ve become more attached to our animals, and the trend is that people are seeing them more as a part of their family, rather than just a pet over the past couple of decades,” Dr. Pamela Perry, of the Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic, said.

“Among other benefits, animals have been demonstrated to improve human cardiovascular health, reduce stress, decrease loneliness and depression, and facilitate social interactions among people who choose to have pets,” a 2007 Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) fact sheet states.

Studies have even indicated that simply stroking a companion dog for 5 to 24 minutes can release the ‘feel good’ hormone oxytocin in both the dog and human, and interaction with companion animals often make humans more social in general, according to the National Institute of Health.

“My father had heart surgery at UVM hospital. When he was in ICU, he was visited by therapy dogs. They have a program where pets come in and visit people in the ICU, and in the pediatric cancer ward. Seeing the patients respond to these animals was incredible,” Perry said. “My dad was barely able to speak, but after the dog was in there, he was so much brighter and so excited to tell everybody about the dog.”

The source of these benefits generally comes from the unconditional affection that a companion animal can provide, and this makes it especially helpful for college students.

“I think with students, even when things aren’t going well, you’ll have that consistency of the companionship of your pet. Especially with therapy animals. They are there, they are consistent, they will always provide you with a companionship that they’re designed to do,” Perry said. “They give us a lot of comfort, a lot of that sense of security, and I think that’s really important for students.”

There are hardships that can go along with these benefits for college students. Moore faced economic difficulties when taking care of both Willard and Raphael. But she says the things a companion animal can do to heal often helps an owner in a more holistic way than a pill can.

“If you’re a dog person especially, there’s so much more joy that comes out of it than just taking a pill out of a pill box. You can do so much more with your dog. You can grow so much more attached to something. It’s not just curing one ailment that you have. You might find a dog beneficial in other ways than a pill.”

Perry hopes that companion animals and therapy animals become more mainstream in the future.

“I would like to see them more widely used because I think they do help with a lot of issues that humans have, that we’re just starting to realize we can benefit from having a therapy animal.”

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