Do Dogs Foster Improved Health in Their Foster Owners?

Does part-time dog ownership offer the same benefits as full-time ownership? A new University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI)program will recruit older adults to foster shelter dogs until the dogs are placed in a more permanent home. The new grant funded by The WALTHAM® Centre for Pet Nutrition, a division of Mars Incorporated, and the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) will allow researchers to study whether older adults benefit from fostering shelter dogs.

“Studies show that people of all ages who own pets are more likely to exercise and to be more involved socially,” said Rebecca Johnson, director of ReCHAI and associate professor for the MU Sinclair School of Nursing and College of Veterinary Medicine. “However, older adults often are hesitant to adopt dogs because they are afraid they will outlive them, because they travel too much or they don’t want the commitment or responsibility. In this study, we will partner these older adults with shelter dogs and determine if the foster owners receive the same benefits as those who own dogs.”

The study, which partners ReCHAI with the Central Missouri Humane Society and Second Chance animal shelters, will match older adults with dogs waiting to be adopted. Foster owners will be provided with a pet ownership orientation, dog food, veterinary care and a 24-hour hotline to answer questions they may have about taking care of their new dogs. The shelters will arrange dog care if the foster owner must go out of town or be hospitalized. During the study, researchers will measure health variables, such as the physical activity level and mood of the participants.

“Fostering gives the dogs a home environment and makes them more adoptable,” Johnson said. “Foster owners provide a halfway house that helps the dogs transition from living in a shelter environment to living in a permanent home. Shelters are very stressful environments for dogs and moving into a home can be an adjustment for some dogs.”

WALTHAM® also is awarding ReCHAI another grant to study the effects of owner visitation in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of veterinary hospitals. The study will measure the dogs’ blood pressure and pain levels, monitoring changes before and after owner visitation.

“Owner visitor policies in the ICU of veterinary hospitals vary greatly,” Johnson said. “When people’s pets are in the ICU, they have very similar experiences and want to be there as they would if their human loved ones were in the ICU. Veterinarians’ opinions vary on whether the owner’s presence helps or hurts the animal. Hopefully, this study will determine what is best for the animal.”

Representatives from WALTHAM® and ISAZ will present the grant to ReCHAI during the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) and Human-Animal Interaction Conference on Oct. 20- 25 at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, Mo. ISAZ aims to promote the study of human-animal interactions and relationships by encouraging and publishing research, holding meetings, and disseminating and exchanging information.