John Ulan)/canadian press

West Highland terriers Ariel, left, and Sebastian, play with owner and assistant professor Gaylene Fasenko, right, and graduate student Ana Franco. Fasenko will teach a course on animals in society at the University of Alberta this year.

Some students at the University of Alberta are going to be sharing their classroom with dogs, cats, rodents and reptiles.

A new course believed to be the only one of its kind in Canada is examining the evolving role of animals in society.

“Animals have come from basically helping people to hunt and carry things and pull carts, to pets, and now we’re finding ... the parallel between human and animal medicine is quite strong,” says Gaylene Fasenko, an assistant professor of agriculture who will be teaching the first-year elective.

She points to recent studies suggesting certain dogs can sniff out cancer or anticipate seizures. Slightly older research has already discovered a purring cat on a lap can lower blood pressure and heart rates.

“I feel strongly about animals and what they bring to our life,” says Fasenko, who owns two West Highland terriers.

A canine program at the Fraser Valley Institute in Abbotsford, B.C., pairs female inmates with animals that have been rescued from abusive homes or puppy mills. Program head Dave Dick says the women, in prison for everything from robbery to murder, work to resocialize the dogs so they can be adopted. “It gives them an opportunity to take responsibility for the care of somebody else,” Dick says.

A similar program at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., sees inmates training dogs to work with the disabled.

Fasenko’s course will concentrate on the modern-day status of animals in a society where 75 per cent of pets receive Christmas and birthday presents, according to a 1999 University of Guelph study.

She and her associate, Ana Franco, a Colombian veterinarian now at the U of A, will focus on the physiology of animals, their behaviour, health and relationship to humans. The teachers hope to attract students in pre-vet studies, medical and nursing school, psychology and science.

The course will feature traditional lectures and hands-on lab sessions with pet therapists, search-and-rescue workers, cat fanciers and a reptile and amphibian society.

Just because it’s a course about animals, doesn’t mean it will be easy, Fasenko warns.

“This is a university course. We do have standards,” she says.