On any given day at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, specially selected individual patients from ages one to 18 make their way to a quiet second-floor wing to spend time with their precious companions, their own pets. At the Purina Family Pet Center—one of just four facilities in the world to permit in-hospital own pet visits—patients sit on chairs or floor mats with their four-legged guests. For patients in a wheelchair or a bed, pets climb up ramps to sit or lie perched atop adjustable and non-slip tables so that they can get as close as possible to their recumbent owners.

“Children and pets have a very special bond,” says Dr. Gerardo Perez-Camargo, a veterinarian and expert in the human-animal bond for Purina, a St. Louis-based subsidiary of Nestlé. “Sometimes a simple visit could be enough to get a patient out of bed or even motivated to recover and return back home.”

The Purina Family Pet Center opened last May, after Flip Becker, Senior Director of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Foundation, proposed the idea to Nestlé Purina PetCare CEO Joseph Sivewright, who sits on the hospital’s board. Within a week, Purina committed to help fund the $450,000 project and utilized their own animal behavior experts to help design the space, determining which color tones, textures and airflow patterns would maximize comfort for patients and pets alike. Nestlé Purina is currently working with a hospital in Brussels on a similar initiative.

The benefits of pet therapy are well-documented. The presence and tactile nature of being with pets lowers blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety in owners, and it can also elevate levels of “feel-good” hormones such as oxytocin. But recent studies suggest that the benefits could be even more profound.

This winter, Nestlé gathered experts in a number of different fields to discuss the science and health benefits behind the human-pet bond, among other topics. Dr. Lisa Freeman, director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction and Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, attended. “From reducing heart disease to lowering levels of depression and improving social relationships—there are so many ways the human-animal bond can improve the lives of both people and pets,” Freeman says.

She points to one Tufts study (subscription required) in which two groups of elementary school-aged children were asked to read aloud to separate groups of dogs or humans at their local library. Those that read to dogs showed a greater improvement in reading skills and in attitudes toward reading. Pets have also been shown to reduce anxiety among nursing home residents and the children coping with a parent’s military deployment.

Experts at Purina also recognize that human interaction can have a positive effect on pets. The company recently examined the impact (subscription required) of a single, 15-minute petting session on 55 dogs at a local shelter. Researchers detected positive changes in the dogs after just one session, with lower heart rates, higher heart rate variability (associated with positive emotions) and an improvement in behavior among those canines involved in the study.

Because pets tend to share our mammalian physiology, our homes and our lifestyles, they also tend to reflect our medical conditions. Researchers at Tufts are looking closely at shared human-animal conditions such as bone cancer, diabetes, interstitial cystitis and osteoarthritis, and how insights from veterinary medicine could translate to clinical human medicine.

Just as veterinary research can inform human clinical treatments, human research can inform veterinary medicine, particularly in the area of nutrition. Dogs and cats are increasingly afflicted by the lifestyle conditions of their owners. According to Dr Perez-Camargo, the physical transformation of cats over a lifetime—with wider waistlines in mid-life and a loss of bone density and muscle mass toward the end of life—is quite similar to the physical transformation in humans. Also, the incidence of obesity, he says, “is creeping up in a very similar pattern to the human population.”

Purina is currently testing an intermittent calorie-restriction product and feeding program in which companion animals would receive their normal daily volume of food but with a lower caloric content, triggering the body to burn fat. Dr Perez-Camargo and his team are also using nutrition to combat the effects of aging in animals. Since the metabolism of glucose in dogs’ brains starts to become less efficient around the age of seven, Purina launched Pro Plan Bright Mind based on extensive research that demonstrates how a botanical oil containing Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) works as a supplemental energy source for the brain to promote significant improvement in alertness and acuity. In another recent study conducted by Purina, scientists also examined the effect of specific nutritional supplements, including antioxidants, a prebiotic and a blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, on the longevity and quality of life of aging cats. On average, cats that consumed the nutritional blend lived significantly longer and showed significantly slower age associated deterioration compared to cats fed a standard diet.

Ultimately, the bond between humans and pets evolved over thousands of years. “Given how we developed, it’s natural for us to live with pets and pets with us,” Dr Perez-Camargo says. Understanding that relationship and its implications and working to strengthen it could lead to healthier, longer lives for pets and their owners alike.