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Not all, or even most, animal therapists are scientists. After four decades of research and experience in the field, though, there is plenty of evidence that the basic hypothesis of animal therapy—that the human-animal bond can provide both physiological and mental benefits for human health— is firmly rooted in anthropology, psychology, evolution- ary biology, medicine, and many other scientific disciplines, as well as fields like history, social science, literature, mythology, and even religion. Some animal therapists are both practitioners and researchers. Many work at medical and veterinary schools, and others come to animal therapy after previous careers as teachers, animal trainers, and health-care professionals. Animal therapy is truly an interdisciplinary approach to human health. Many studies have focused on the ways pets and animals in general contribute to human mental health, but the con- clusions of researchers have often been largely subjective, rather than founded in hard scientific data. That is, their find- ings are based on people’s personal accounts of how animals have improved their lives, or on the observations of health- care workers whose own beliefs may influence their conclu- sions. Even so, much of this evidence is very persuasive: Animals have been found to help fend off loneliness and depression, to give people a sense of safety and protection, and to encourage physical activity and social interaction in people who would otherwise spend most of their time alone. For some people, an animal may serve as a substitute for absent children, or as a welcome distraction from pain and trouble. Pets are a source of amusement and companionship, and a socially acceptable outlet for touching and caressing, which many studies have shown is as basic a human need as food. Pets provide a sense of order and structure to people’s lives, and allow them to feel needed, appreciated, and uncon- ditionally loved. They are ready partners in play, another basic human activity shared with many other animals. Some experts also believe that we humans crave a con- nection with the natural environment, something that can be hard to come by in a time of increasing urban sprawl and fast-paced, high-tech lifestyles. In a sense, animals may be our modern ambassadors to the natural world. They answer a widespread longing that many of us may feel to restore a kind of simplicity to our hectic lives. However widespread and longstanding the belief that ani- mals are good for us, hard science to support the benefits of animal therapy has been a long time coming. Part of the rea- son is that it is difficult to measure psychological benefits. We usually think of mental health and physical health as two separate things, but most scientists and health researchers now believe there is no clear dividing line between the mind and the body. Mental health problems and stress often lead to physical illness; physical illness, in turn, can have serious consequences for a person’s mental health. Besides the well-known psychological benefits of human interaction with animals, scientific studies have now shown numerous physiological benefits, including: • higher survival rates following diagnosis of heart dis- ease or heart attacks; • reduced blood pressure and stress levels, plus lower cholesterol levels; • better balance, coordination, mobility, muscular strength, posture, and language ability for physically challenged people who take part in therapeutic riding programs; • a dramatic increase in recreational walks, which improves physical fitness; • a reduction in the demand for physicians’ services for routine medical problems. Animals have been credited with some pretty dramatic “cures,” such as bringing people out of comas and prompt- ing autistic children to speak for the first time ever. No longer are such stories confined to the realm of fiction, although animal healers continue to play starring roles in popular novels, movies, and television shows, as more and more real-life instances of animal healing are documented and analyzed by scientists from many different fields.

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