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June 4, 2014

Science on Tap talk to highlight benefits of animal companionship

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Leading Purdue University animal ecologist Alan Beck will headline this week's Science on Tap with a talk on the means by which animal companionship impacts both human and animal health.

The talk, titled "The Social and Health Roles of Animals in Society," is at 6 p.m. Thursday (June 5) in the upstairs of Lafayette Brewing Company, 622 Main St., Lafayette. The informal lecture, which is free and open to those 21 and older, is sponsored by the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine and Discovery Park.

"The human family has contained domestic animals for thousands of years. In the U.S., more than 61 percent of households have companion animals and nearly half have more than one," said Beck, the Dorothy N. McAllister Professor of Animal Ecology and director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue. "All indications are that companion animals play the role of a family member, often, a member with the most desired attributes."

Studies focused on the benefits of human-animal interaction have found that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets, and that playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Pet owners also have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than those without pets.

"Ordinary interactions with animals can reduce blood pressure and alter survival after a heart attack," Beck said.

One reason for these healing effects is that most pets alleviate the human need to touch, Beck said. Criminals in prison have shown long-term alterations in their behavior after interacting with pets. Stroking, holding, cuddling or simply touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe humans when stressed. The companionship of a pet can also eases loneliness. For some, pets offer increased opportunities to meet people, he said.

Beck's book, "The Ecology of Stray Dogs: A Study of Free-Ranging Urban Dogs," is recognized in the field of urban ecology and was republished by Purdue University Press in 2002. Together with Dr. Aaron Katcher, he edited the book, "New Perspectives on Our Lives with Companion Animals," and co-authored "Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship."

Beck, who has studied the ecological and public health implications of dogs in Baltimore, St. Louis, New York and along the United States-Mexican border, is a founding board member of the Delta Society. He also has directed the animal programs for the New York City Department of Health as well as served as director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Beck, who has been at Purdue for more than two decades, received his bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College and master's degree from California State University at Los Angeles. He received a doctorate in animal ecology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

Science on Tap, led by graduate students David Welkie, Anju Karki and Nelda Vazquez, provides Purdue faculty and collaborating researchers the opportunity to share research activities in an informal setting with presentations that are designed to appeal to a more general audience. Attendance at the monthly event has averaged 80 during the program's first four years. 

Writers: Anna Schultz, 812-447-5229, schult70@purdue.edu

Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133, pfiorini@purdue.edu

Sources: Alan Beck, 765-494-0854, abeck@purdue.edu

David Welkie, 765-494-0455, dwelkie@purdue.edu

 Nelda Vazquez, 765-496-1487, nvazque@purdue.edu  

Anju Karki, 765-494-0455, akarki@purdue.edu 

Beck Photo: http://media.naplesnews.com/media/img/photos/2013/01/07/Beck.jpg