PVM Human-Animal Interaction Scholar’s Research Draws International Attention

Documenting the effect animals have on children with Autism and veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the goal of research projects being led by Dr. Maggie O’Haire, Purdue Veterinary Medicine assistant professor of human-animal interaction in the Department of Comparative Pathobiology, and a member of the Purdue University Center for Animal Welfare Science and the Purdue University Center for the Human-Animal Bond.  Her studies have attracted international attention, as funding sources have released stories about her work.

A press conference in Washington, D.C. in April provided the setting for an announcement by the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation about a first-of-its-kind controlled scientific study that Dr. O’Haire is leading to measure the effects of service dogs on post 9-11 war veterans with PTSD and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  A $42,000 grant for the Purdue study was announced at the news conference, along with details about how participants in the K9s For Warriors program, a nonprofit organization pairing war veterans with service dogs, will take part in the study.

“While numerous studies have confirmed that companion animals help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has cited a lack of specific scientific evidence on the effectiveness of service animals for war veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI,” said HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman. “We are committed to addressing this gap in peer-reviewed science so that every veteran who needs a service animal can get one.”

Dr. O’Haire was among the speakers at the press conference. “While there are existing PTSD treatments available for veterans, a number of them have limited effectiveness and high drop-out rates,” Dr. O’Haire said. “This controlled research study will evaluate the impact of service dogs on veterans, which may provide an effective addition to enhance current practices.”

The story even was covered on television in Russia.  Click here to view the Russian broadcast, which includes Dr. O’Haire’s comments (Dr. O’Haire appears about 1:20 into the video).  For information about the HABRI Foundation and the grant, visit HABRI.org.

Another study that Dr. O’Haire is leading attracted the interest of media outlets from around the world when details were posted on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website.  Headlined, “Animals’ presence may ease social anxiety in kids with autism,” the on-line story reported on the implications of the study, which is funded in part by the NIH.  The research showed that, when animals are present, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have lower readings on a device that detects anxiety and other forms of social arousal when interacting with their peers. The research suggests that companion animals — like dogs, cats or the guinea pigs in the study — may prove to be a helpful addition to treatment programs designed to help children with ASD improve their social skills and interactions with other people.

Dr. O’Haire worked with colleagues in the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia on the study, which was published online in Developmental Psychobiology.  “Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially,” said James Griffin, Ph.D., of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). “This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations.” He added, “By providing support for these research studies, we hope to generate more definitive answers about how human-animal interaction affects health.”

This study is among several funded under a public-private partnership established in 2008 between NICHD and the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, a division of Mars, Inc., to establish a human-animal interaction research program to support studies relevant to child development, health, and the therapeutic use of animals.  Dr. O’Haire said that earlier studies have shown that children with ASD were less likely to withdraw from social situations when companion animals are present. These studies, along with the current findings, indicate that animals “have the potential to play a part in interventions seeking to help children with autism develop their social skills.” She cautioned, however, that the findings do not mean that parents of children with ASD should rush to buy an animal for their children. Further research is needed to determine how animals might be used in programs aimed at developing social skills.

Click here to view the NIH story about the research.  The NIH shared with Dr. O’Haire that from their initial evaluation of the response to their on-line release about the study, 151 additional stories were generated, with a total reach of 99.6 million people.

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