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Pets Make Us Better

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Recently, the journal of Pediatrics published a study showing that children who live in a home with a pet before they are one year old are likely to be healthier than children without four-legged siblings.

As mother to a 5-year-old son, Benjamin, and "fur mom" to an 8-year-old King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, Wellington, news of this small study was, in a word, thrilling. Not least of which because news that, you know -- scientifically speaking, we've provided our son with the best environment for a healthy childhood, is always to be celebrated. (It helps to counteract all the times we worry endlessly that we're not doing everything else right!)

But my delight goes a little further still. Yes, whether physically, emotionally or something in between, pets make us better. We've known it in our hearts for years, and scientific researchers are doing their part to put empirical evidence behind our gut feelings. But it's even more exciting than that. Researchers, from every spectrum of science, are connecting pets, health and medicine in ways that are simply remarkable.

Earlier this year, Petplan paid nearly $20,000 in pet health insurance claims for Plucky, an 8-year-old Greyhound who needed a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia. Available at only a few university veterinary facilities around the country, Plucky and his "mom" traveled from the suburbs of Philadelphia to Raleigh, N.C., to undergo this tremendous treatment at N.C. State. Of course, bone marrow transplants have been common enough in human medicine for several years now, but recent advances have started to make this treatment available, albeit not widely, to our pets too -- with tremendous results. The ironic part? The science was originally developed in veterinary medicine before being refined and made commonplace in human medicine. Pets help make us better.

Two years ago, Heidi Jeter of Morris Animal Foundation wrote an article for fetch! magazine about a study funded by the Foundation's Canine Cancer Campaign. In her piece, she noted researchers were exploring treatments that could have benefits for both pets and people. What was most intriguing about Heidi's article to me was that Foundation-funded study was looking closely at a form of bone cancer that affects approximately 10,000 dogs each year, but also 1,000 children each year. And while 1,000 children suffering from any kind of cancer is 1,000 too many, it is, sadly, almost too few for researchers to be able to quickly to find a solution. Wonderfully, canine studies, like this one, have potential to help both our four- and two-legged kids. Pets help make our children better.

Ten years ago, my husband Chris and I sought treatment for our cat, Bodey, at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. For reasons unknown, Bodey had stopped eating and was gravely ill. Several weeks of tests and treatments and a $5,000 vet bill later, Bodey was back on track. At the time, we were MBA candidates at The Wharton School. Chris, a former Captain in the Royal Marines Commandoes, and I, the daughter of a Greek entrepreneur whose ventures serviced the shipping industry, had every intention of starting a Maritime Security company. But when Bodey got sick, our lives changed. Like any students, we were eternally strapped for cash. We had no idea how we were going to pay for her veterinary care, but we knew we had to do something. So we put the bill on our credit card and moved into a smaller, cheaper apartment so that we could pay it off. What's more, we promptly put our pre-conceived life plans to the side and set out to transform the state of pet insurance in America. And, thanks to Bodey, that's exactly what we're doing.

So given all that, when I read with great interest the amazing work physicians, veterinarians and researchers are doing to advance medicine, and how, even on a biological level, pets can have a positive impact on our lives, I smile a little more deeply than most. Because, unlike the researchers who cautiously posit, suggest and conclude, I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that pets make us better. I just hope that we can return the favor.