By Sandy Quadros Bowles
As a girl growing up in Florida, Lisa Freeman dreamed of becoming an equine veterinarian.
That was not such an unusual plan for a girl who grew up riding horses.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, whose plans change course amid life’s ebbs and flows, Freeman did indeed become a veterinarian.But her specialty changed. She now works primarily with smaller animals such as cats and dogs, and focuses her work on optimizing their nutritional needs as a specialist in veterinary nutrition. She is one of less than 100 veterinary nutrition specialists that are board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. Dr. Freeman has been a member of the faculty at Cummings School, where she cares for patients, teaches veterinary students about nutrition, and leads research on nutrition and heart disease.
However, Freeman’s other role is a field that is very different and one that is only beginning to develop: The benefits humans and animals have on one another.
Dr. Freeman directs the new Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction s a university-wide initiative that will bring together faculty, staff, students, and alumni from multiple disciplines to advance research, education, and service in the field of human-animal interaction.. The institute was officially launched March 3.
The institute is unique, she said, because its work transcends the veterinary field. The institute pools the talents of Tufts specialists in such far-ranging fields as occupational therapy, psychology, public health, engineering and veterinary medicine to study the science behind animal-human connections.
“TIHAI will bridge the Tufts campuses and bring together people from the different disciplines to advance this field,’’ she said. “A shared appreciation for animals brings people together and will help to advance this field.
She is a definite believer in the work done by Tufts: She received her bachelor’s degree in biology, doctorate of veterinary medicine and PhD in nutrition, all from Tufts.
Members of the new institute will apply their combined knowledge and experience to provide solid science to subjects that Dr. Freeman said hadn’t been sufficiently studied. “We want to look at how animals help people and vice versa,’’ she said.
One example of the topics under study, she said, is the positive affects of therapy animals for people. “Anyone involved can subjectively see the benefits but we need more rigorous scientific study to understand and optimize these interactions,’’ she said.
The Institute, for example, is studying the effects of therapy animals on children undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Specialists in cancer treatment and child development, for example, can study how the animals impact the children’s emotional and physical health.
But that is only half the equation. The Institute also is to studying how the animals are affected as well. “We want to make sure it’s not stressful for the animals and that they enjoy the visits as well,’’ she said. “We want to be sure we look at both sides of the equation.’’
They do that, in part, by testing saliva levels and other behaviors of the animals to determine their reactions.
Therapy animals have a special place in Dr. Freeman’s heart: She owns a Welsh corgi that is a registered therapy dog. She and the dog regularly visit hospitals and nursing homes to greet and comfort patients and residents.
In addition to directing the new Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, she also serves as faculty advisor for Tufts Paws for People, the veterinary school’s volunteer animal-assisted therapy group.
“There’s a very special relationship between people and animals that can bring out the best in both people and animals,’’ she said.
Her dog also participates in programs to help children learn to read. “It’s amazing to see the progress that the children make. It’s much easier to read to dogs because they’re always non-judgmental,’’ she said.
Through her training with Tufts Paws for People and the national organization, Pet Partners, she recognizes that the handler is a critical component for a successful therapy animal.
“The handler has to be as well-trained as the animal,’’ she said. For example, hospitals tend to be noisy and have slippery floors, both of which could be stressful to some animals. We also have to follow very rigorous safety, health, and grooming protocols to ensure safety of the people we’re visiting.
“Being your animal’s advocate’’ is critical to ensure that the therapy animal is successful. “We have to ensure that the animal is well prepared, properly cleaned and visiting places where they’re comfortable and that we look out for them at all times. It really is a team effort.’’
And so is the Institute. “There’s tremendous expertise at Tufts,’’ she said. “The innovative research, education, and service programs in human-animal interaction will help to establish Tufts as a leader in this field.’’