Have pet, will exhale

Your dog’s excited welcome or your cat’s familiar purr are not just passing emotional perks but important players in improving your long-term mental health. Growing evidence suggests a link between ownership of pets — dogs, cats, birds and, yes, even guinea pigs — and a strong sense of well-being. And while many of us know how much we love our pets and how good we feel around them (or even thinking about them), now there is scientific research to explain and support what many of us have felt for years.  Here are some of the specifics:

Brain chemistry: cortisol, dopamine, oxytocin

Is the connection between pets and mental health simply a matter of perception? If animals make you simply feel less stressed, then are you? Or is there a physiological basis for this?

Science indicates it is, indeed, physical.  Researchers have determined that interacting with a friendly animal lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate and has a positive effect on the body’s levels of stress-modulating hormones, particularly cortisol and dopamine. Cortisol plays an important role in controlling blood sugar and metabolism and reducing inflammation.  Dopamine is a chemical mood booster prompting feelings of pleasure and motivation.  

Pets offer unconditional love.  Perhaps, that’s why human-animal interactions also seemingly stimulate production of oxytocin — sometimes called the “love hormone.” Oxytocin enhances social bonding and human sexual intimacy, while helping relieve anxiety and stress.  The oxytocinergic system also is associated with a person’s feelings of empathy. 

Social and emotional perks

through life’s stages  

Research has proven that lack of relationships, social isolation and loneliness contribute to depression and anxiety. While pets may not replace humans, their unconditional love, warmth and loyalty provide companionship, connection and a sense of purpose. These feelings may buffer depressive tendencies, quell anxious feelings and mitigate loneliness.  A pet’s spontaneous interaction with a stranger can ease conversation and promote playful interactions among owners.     

Pet owners reap benefits throughout the stages of the life cycle. For example, pets in a family offer an opportunity for shared love and connection. For children, having a pet allows them to become a caretaker as well as a buddy. For older adults, a pet can help alleviate feelings of loneliness, provide opportunities for playfulness and a reason to get out of the house. And even for adolescents and college students, pets are found to help reduce stress and give unconditional acceptance during times of insecurity and sel-doubt.   

Among the most recent pet polls — this one involving more than 2,000 participants between the ages of 50 and 80 and reported in 2019 by Michigan Medicine and the AARP,
a majority, nine of 10 respondents, concluded pets were helping lower their stress. Nearly three-quarters of older respondents, who at the time of the survey were either living alone or struggling with emotional or physical issues, said pets enabled them to cope. Sixty-five percent of poll participants credited pets for enhancing their ability to interact socially with others. Meanwhile, in a Harris poll of a few years ago, 95 percent of pet owners said they considered their pet to be a member of the family.

Although much of the scientific investigation has focused on dogs, other kinds of animals are known to provide similar beneficial effects to the human psyche.  In a report in the journal Developmental Psychobiology, for example, authors write that children who have ASD — autism spectrum disorder — demonstrated improved “social functioning” after ongoing exposure to guinea pigs. Some animal-assisted therapy programs to improve mental health, especially in troubled teenagers and young adults, include horses, which, some experts say, “have a sensitivity to people’s feelings.”

The takeaway

Buy a horse?  Not necessarily, but a preponderance of evidence supports the contention that pets affect our overall health — mental and physical. They boost self-esteem and social attention. They help raise our energy levels; reduce our mental fatigue, our stress-related factors and our self-reported fears and anxiety; lower the risk for depression and feelings of social isolation; and beneficially effect our cardiovascular system. (People with dogs tend to get more exercise.) According to some limited studies, pets may even enhance our immune system and our ability to manage pain. The takeaway: Animals can play an important role in human lives. Indeed, one study investigator — in BMC Psychiatry in 2018 — even suggested that animals be included in patient care plans because of their benefits to mental health.  

Our federal government agrees. In a flyer, “Pets Promote Health,” for a National Pet Week celebration, the United States Public Health Service stated that “animals improve mental and emotional well-being in humans. Pet owners are less likely to suffer from stress, anxiety and depression than non-pet owners.”

So, the next time your community is holding a “clear the animal shelters” adoption program, you just may want to consider acquiring a pet — for your own good. 

Dana Dorfman PhD, LCSW is a New York City-based psychotherapist and clinical social worker. 

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