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 worked with HABIT faculty advisor Zenithson Ng on a study about the effects of therapy dog visits at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
The study focused 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 became part of a growing population of active-duty military and veteran students who use their benefits at UT.
After graduating in 2017, Opel was assigned to the First Year Graduate Veterinary Education program at Fort Benning, Georgia. She teaches new veterinary officers about Human-Animal Bond, brings the programs to Fort Benning, and presents at military conferences.
Opel is also developing proposed policies for the hospital at Fort Benning to allow therapy dogs to visit patients.