McClelland Institute Faculty assist in study: Dog bacteria might benefit human health

Fido’s licks and tummy rubs just might be good for your health.

Arizona researchers are studying the biological connection between humans and dogs that could be shared through saliva, skin, and even feces.

Scientists at the University of Arizona created the Human-Animal Interaction Research Initiative (HAIRI) to study the health links between humans and animals.

“We’ve noticed that the human-non-human interaction is something that happens all around us, all the time,” said Netzin Steklis, a lecturer in Family Studies and Human Development at UA and co-founder of HAIRI.

Animal behavior specialists Netzin Steklis and Dieter Steklis study the relationship between humans and apes, and they aim to translate their knowledge to other animal-human relationships. The couple owns Orion, an 8-year-old black Lab that is more of a family member than a pet.

“It’s a peculiar human occupation, to hang out with animals,” said Dieter, professor of Psychology and Anthropology at UA. “Under natural circumstances, this is something we’ve done for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s a mutual relationship.”

This relationship is the backbone of HAIRI’s research into “Dogs as Probiotics.” Founded in October, HAIRI has gathered researchers from around UA and Arizona, and research on dogs is their first undertaking.

The study was partly inspired by recent research at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2013, where a study showed married couples share more “microbiota” with their dog than with one another.   

Beneficial bacteria on skin and in the gastrointestinal tract help prevent inflammation and other disease-causing bacteria. The study found that not only do people share this microbiome by cohabiting an environment, but their dogs actually share more of this gut bacteria with them than other humans.

“We know kids in the West that are raised with animals, particularly dogs, show less autoimmune disorders,” said Kim Kelly, a doctoral student in medical anthropology at the UA and HAIRI program coordinator. “That means something is going on. How did humans coevolve with dogs and what does that mean for our modern day relationship with dogs?”

Partnering with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, HAIRI will pair older adults in Arizona with foster dogs, and over the course of three months their health will be monitored and compared by testing saliva, skin, and fecal samples.

“We’re hoping we’ll see a correlation between positive microbes being passed from the dog to the human,” Kelly said.

The study is currently in a recruitment phase, and researchers are seeking Arizona volunteers over the age of 50 who have not owned a dog in the past six months. They will be screened and paired with a dog from the Humane Society, which will provide veterinary care, food, and training for the duration of the study. At the end of the study, they will have the option to adopt the dog they have been paired with.

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