In honor of National Pet Month, we thought it would be fitting to focus the remarkable effects our furry friends have on our health, and, more specifically, on our minds. Animal lovers have long known that no matter what life may bring — sickness, sadness, or health — pets make us feel better. There have been numerous studies that document the astonishing ways animals are beneficial for us. For example, cat owners haven been found to enjoy a 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk and petting a dog has been proven to boost the immune system. Researchers now have an explanation for these healing powers associated with our beloved companion animals: they profoundly change the biochemistry of our brains.
Oxytocin to the rescue! The neuropeptide oxytocin is a brain chemical released by the pituitary gland that causes a cascade of physiological changes. It can slow heart rate and breathing, reduce blood pressure, and inhibit the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. The result is a sense of calm, comfort, and bliss. And guess what? Every time you lovingly gaze into your pet’s eyes or give him a belly rub, his levels of oxytocin—the hormone associated with love and attachment—rise dramatically, as do your own.
Make way for the neurochemicals. Bottom of FormTop of FormBottom of FormOxytocin is not the only neurotransmitter companion animals call forth from our brains. Researchers have found that when people interact with their cherished pets, it boosts levels of beta endorphins—natural painkillers associated with “runners high”—and dopamine, known widely as the “reward” hormone. These neurochemicals are also essential to our sense of well-being. A significant study conducted by University of Missouri scientists also documented that petting dogs caused a spike in people’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter that most antidepressants attempt to elevate.
Simply put, pets help normalize brain chemistry. It’s no wonder pet-assisted therapies help people with autism spectrum disorder, those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), drug addiction, eating disorders, dementia, and much more. Ask any pet owner and they’re sure to have plenty of stories about how their furry friend has comforted them during a period of immense grief, made them laugh after a hard day, or been a source of comfort when they were sad or lonely. It seems obvious that the animal companions we’ve chosen to bring into our lives would make us happy, but science shows that it goes much deeper than that—and the connection comes straight from our brains.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Executive Director at The Better Brain Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 833-964-8483 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.