After years of indecision over whether the subject yields enough hard science to win the respect of scientists, the National Institutes of Health is getting ready to sponsor a conference on the health benefits of pets.

The conference, called a "technology assessment workshop," is set for Sept. 10 and 11 at NIH headquarters in Bethesda. Speakers and participants will include psychologists, veterinarians, physicians, social workers and others with experience and interest in the use of animals as therapeutic agents in institutional settings.

Sponsors at NIH hope it will point the way beyond anecdotal and even sentimental evidence that tends to dominate many discussions of the "human-animal bond," as they call it, and lead to further investigation and quantification of results: Data that can be used to help design future programs involving animal-human interaction.

"We will be looking for experiments conducted with reasonable control groups and which explain their data and deal adequately with variations," says Dr. Thomas Wolfle, deputy director of the Office of Animal Care and Use at NIH.

There seems to be no shortage of such material. The conference agenda looks like the sort of thing you'd expect from, say, a workshop on cures for the common cold -- full of numbers and arcane data on experiments and experience.

Papers are coming in on such topics as "companion animals in hypertension and myocardial infarction {heart attack}," "child development, basic socialization, attitudes, ethical structure," "adults and elderly persons, epidemiology," and "role of pets in family life transitions."

All this, says Wolfle of NIH, will help "raise the level of science and increase the visibility of this area" -- with the hope, he adds, of attracting funds for additional research. He says NIH is concerned "not to give the wrong impression, not to generate careless headlines that say something like 'Pet Dogs Can Cure High Blood Pressure.' What we do want to say is that there are data that are very suggestive that for some people under some forms of stress, pets are enormously beneficial -- that there are physiological effects on such things as blood pressure, the survival rate after heart attacks, and so on."

"The biggest handicap," he says, "is that animal therapy is so intuitively good that it is hard to be objective. So our 'enemies,' if we have any, are the enthusiasts who don't ask the right questions and whose studies aren't well designed but are largely anecdotal." The forthcoming NIH conference is intended to set the professionals right on at least that score.