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Animal Therapy Aims

Taylor Opel’s animal therapy research at UT could improve the future for soldiers suffering from mental illness.

Maj. Opel was serving in the Army as a veterinarian when she decided to pursue a veterinary master’s in public health (MPH) at UT, one of the few schools in the country that offers the degree.

“The MPH program is unique since it combines human, environmental, and animal health care, referred to as the One Health perspective on solving global health issues,” she explains.

Since public health veterinarians work in such fields as human food safety, disaster response, and zoonotic disease control, Opel calls them “the behind-the-scenes link between human and animal health.”

Although the Army has tried some pilot programs with soldiers and service dogs, Opel says, “There are a lot of hurdles to jump before a permanent, funded program is established.”

For instance, most current animal therapy studies are based on people reporting how they feel. Opel says that is not strong enough evidence for the military to establish a new program.

Results that can be measured are needed, and her work as a graduate research coordinator in UT’s Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee (HABIT) program may help make the case.

Opel is working with HABIT faculty advisor Zenithson Ng on a study about the effects of therapy dog visits at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.

The study focuses on whether children who get a visit from a therapy dog right before sedation need lower doses of anesthetics.

“I have been able to see firsthand how much these dogs can affect a child’s hospital visit,” Opel says. “These kids are scared, but when they see the dogs they just light up.”

“I think if the study shows that animal interaction has a direct influence on human physiology in a way that can positively change their medical care—like needing less anesthetic drugs—it can definitely support the inclusion of animal therapy programs in treating soldiers for PTSD and other mental illnesses,” she explains.

Opel is part of a growing population of active-duty military and veteran students who are using their benefits at UT.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UT 31st among all public universities on its 2017 list of Best Colleges for Veterans. The university was also named a military friendly school in 2016 by Victory Media.

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