By: Miski Dahir

Growing up, one of my favourite trips was to the doctor’s office. We would get in the car and drive to the doctor’s. I would sit in the waiting room, eagerly waiting for the moment the receptionist called out my name and said “please follow me to your room”. The doctor would finally come in, ask how I was doing and tell me to explain what I was visiting for. A few checkup procedures and five minutes later, I would walk out with a prescription in one hand, a sticker on the other, and torrent of thoughts in mind.

See, what fascinated me about the doctor’s office wasn’t the stickers (though I absolutely loved them). Rather, I was fascinated by how the doctor could ask me for a list of symptoms, check whatever was hurting me and figure out what was going on with my health. Health. What an awesome word. Five-year-old me was fascinated by health. What exactly was health? What did it encompass? Five-year-old me however, built a definition of health based on doctor visits and medical documentaries on television. I thought health only encompassed the physical human body. I thought that health could only be approached from a medical perspective, and could only be treated by doctors.

As I grew older though, I came across other words. Words like stress, anxiety, depression and eventually, mental health. With this, I learned that health was so much more complex than just the physical human body. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” I particularly like this definition because it outlines all the other aspects of health I hadn’t been aware of, or really thought about when I pondered health.

The research project we are working on this summer is “Our Pets and Our Health: a photovoice pilot study.” This project is exploring how pets affect the health of people who are vulnerably housed or are dealing with homelessness. I vividly remember my first conversation with Dr. Kim Matheson on the project. During our conversation, she asked me if I’d ever heard of One Health. I hadn’t. When I shook my head and said “No,” she went on to explain what One Health meant. One Health is a multidisciplinary approach to health. It recognizes that human health is interconnected with the health of animals and the environment. It unites multiple fields for the improvement of health. To my great surprise, that one conversation with Dr. Matheson left me with a different understanding of health and many thoughts, insights and curiosity.

Just how closely is human health interconnected with animal health? This is one area of curiosity I just had to satisfy this summer. During the first few weeks of the summer, we spent time reading journal articles and familiarizing ourselves with the literature on this topic. The results of my readings? More insights. Even more curiosity. The benefits people derive from animals is incredible. From their great use in animal assisted therapy to the unconditional love and support they provide to people as pets, their important roles in the lives of people is unrivaled. I am really excited about the Our Pets and Our Health project, as it will provide us with more insights on how pets can positively impact the lives of vulnerable populations.

I never had any pets growing up. Due to this, I never really thought about the ways in which animals played a role in my life. I never thought that animal and human health could be interrelated, especially for someone who had never had a pet. However, working on this research project has allowed me to reflect on how animals have, in fact, played a role in my life. When I look back on my childhood, I have memories of walking to a park by the Rideau River with my family. My dad and I would feed the geese (though we probably shouldn’t have). We would go to hills and watch groundhogs come out. Despite not having a cat ourselves, we would play with the neighbourhood cats. Some of my favourite trips were those to the Agricultural Museum where we would watch horses, cows and other farm animals.

I recently talked to an uncle of mine who had gone on vacation. When I asked for pictures, I didn’t receive pictures of him. I was sent pictures of cats and baby goats. When I go through my camera roll on my phone, I find pictures I’ve taken of animals without giving much thought. Why is that? I’m starting to think it all goes back to One Health. Regardless of whether you’re a pet owner or not, you interact with animals and environment all the time. Ultimately, they do impact your health and play a very important role in your life. This summer has shown me that animals do play a role in our lives and discovering the health benefits we can derive from them is something I’m really looking forward to. I am eager to learn the findings of our research and to continue to expand my definitions, and understanding of health.