Institute for human-animal interaction unites pets and future vets

The Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction plans to involve both undergraduate and graduate students in an effort to explore the mutual, beneficial effects of human-animal relationships. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Pets have always been described as man’s best friends. But for students and faculty involved in the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI), a walk in the park or game of fetch represent real, positive effects on the health and well-being of both people and animals.

TIHAI is a new university-wide initiative that endeavors to examine human-animal interaction through a discerning, scientific lens, in order to ultimately understand how to cultivate mutually beneficial interspecies relationships, according to its website.

According to Lisa Freeman, TIHAI director and professor of clinical sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, the institute seeks to unite students and faculty across Tufts’ graduate and undergraduate programs to create an interdisciplinary and comprehensive program that will spearhead research, advance education and facilitate the development of service programs.

“The overall mission is to promote the health and strength and well-being of humans and animals by bringing together people from a lot of different disciplines to foster innovative research and service programs,” Freeman said.

According to Freeman, undisputed benefits exist for both parties involved in a lot of the human-animal interaction they have researched. Physically, time spent with animals has been observed to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks. In the realm of mental health, human-animal interaction has been found to reduce anxiety, stress and depression, as well as helping to fortify social relationships.

“When people have pets, they have a much easier time interacting with other people,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to bring people together.”

According to Freeman, one of the primary means of involvement in TIHAI at the undergraduate level is through some of the courses tied to the program, which are open to students from any discipline and do not require any prerequisites.

Among the courses offered within the undergraduate school is one entitled “Human-Animal Interaction in Childhood And Adolescence,” taught by Research Assistant Professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine Megan Mueller. 

The class focuses on how human-animal interaction can promote healthier growth and development for children, families and the greater community. It places an emphasis on integrative research and highlights guest speakers from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts Medical School and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Mueller said that relationships with pets have been a major part of TIHAI’s research.

“A lot of the research we do focuses on people’s relationship with their pets,” Mueller said. “Emotionally supportive relationships with pets can be good for emotional wellbeing; animal assistance therapy applications can be beneficial for mental and physical health outcomes.”

According to Mueller, TIHAI’s research doesn’t pertain to humans alone.

“[We are] assessing the experience for the animals as well, [and really examining the] animal side of things as well as the human side of things,” she said.

Mueller believes that, as a new field, the discipline of analyzing human-animal interaction has some shortcomings, and that research is often anecdotal or limited in scope. However, with more involvement from interdisciplinary students, she hopes to see a greater number of higher quality research projects.

“It’s a new field; some of it is a little bit limited, so we are trying to encourage higher quality research projects,” she said. [We hope to] increase our capacity to do high quality work and figure out how to benefit the measure of human animal interaction.”

Another course open to undergraduates is “Human/Animal Studies,” an Experimental College course that analyzes human-animal interaction across history and explores the ethical questions raised by these relations.

According to the course description on the Experimental College’s website, the course is taught by Laura Cummings (LA ’00), who has held a vast array of veterinary positions, including roles at a primate-research facility, a kill-shelter and a wildlife refuge. She now serves as an emergency veterinarian in a 24-hour critical care hospital.

According to Freeman and Mueller, research opportunities within the program are plentiful. Active studies include an examination of the roles therapeutic animals play within military families, children undergoing chemotherapy and people afflicted with PTSD, according to Freeman.

Freeman believes that the research undertaken by TIHAI will be at the forefront of sciences related to human-animal interactions, bringing new life to the field.

“There is a lot of research generated from Tufts already, [but] having the institute is really going to accelerate research and education and put Tufts in a leadership role in the field of human-animal interaction,” Freeman said.

This year, TIHAI is inaugurating its Student Scholars Program, through which graduate and undergraduate students can submit proposals for different events, projects and programs that broadly relate to study, schooling and service within the field of human-animal interaction. Five scholars will be awarded funding to help the plans that they submit come to fruition. 

“Any activities that will benefit humans and animals in the HAI area [will be considered],” Freeman said. “[Submissions can be] anything from research projects to educational programs to service activities.”

According to the Institute’s website, submissions are due April 1, and applicants will be notified by May 1 whether or not they will receive funding.

First-year student Rati Srinivasan, who is planning to be complete the pre-veterinary track, believes the research and service opportunities of TIHAI, especially through the Student Scholars Program, will be particularly invaluable for her in deciding whether or not she will pursue a path in veterinary medicine.

“I mean, I could take all the chem and bio classes I want, I could spend my free time on the internet learning all about animals … but nothing beats real experience,” Srinivasan said. “That’s the point where a student is able to see if this is something they still want and are capable of.”

While the TIHAI launch ceremony and reception was scheduled for Feb. 10, it has been postponed due to inclement weather. The event has been rescheduled for March 3 at 4:30 p.m. in the Coolidge Room within Ballou Hall.