The recent months have been a strain for most. One of the positives, personally, has been reinforcing the special bond I have with my own cat. 90% of pet owners see their pet as part of the family and I am not alone as it seems 90% of UK pet owners also say owning a pet makes them happy. A further 88% feel pet ownership improves their overall quality of life.
Interactions with pets and positive physical contact lead to a variety of physiological and psychological benefits releasing biochemicals which can boost the immune system and enhance health and wellbeing. Paying homage to our furry friends, here we look at the factors and the science behind what makes them so special.
Basic activities involved in animal care such as bending, reaching, providing water and food, grooming, and playing are great for people who spend the day stationary. Pets also help us maintain health-protective behaviours, like eating well or going for a walk. One study found dog owners aged 65+ did more walking with fewer periods of sitting than people without dogs. Dog walking often leads to more social interaction which also is proven to boost mental wellbeing as is exercise.
In a survey asking what it has been like having animal companions during the pandemic, words like ‘comforting’ and ‘helpful’ were often repeated. Some enjoyed seeing what their pet does when they are usually out. Many said they would be lost without their pet, saying things like ‘I don’t know what I would do without the company of my dog, she has kept me going,’ or, ‘It is the only thing that is keeping me sane.’ There were also those who said they talk with their pet and that it helped stave off loneliness.
Loneliness is linked to poor mental wellbeing and increased risk of a whole host of diseases such as Alzheimer’s so anything that reduces loneliness is to be applauded.
Just 15 minutes of interaction with companion animals help release a variety of helpful neurochemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine, prolactin, endorphins, norepinephrine, and beta phenylethylamine. There is also a reduction in cortisol levels.
High levels of cortisol seen with stress can suppress the immune system and make the body susceptible to infections. Interactions with companion animals appear to reduce cortisol levels, which is helpful in maintaining good health.
Increased dopamine levels contribute to the experience of pleasure and endorphins can give relief from pain and stress. Noradrenaline can help focus as well as regulate the heart rate and sleep-wake cycle. Phenylethylamine helps regulate mood and reduces tiredness.
General health benefits
The American Heart Association reported that dog ownership was associated with a 33% lower risk of early death for heart attack survivors living alone, and 27% reduced risk of early death for stroke survivors living alone. One study showed that pet-stroking can lower your heart rate as well as that of the pet’s and another linked cat ownership to reduced risk of dying from heart attack or stroke. Even the sound of a cat’s purr can calm your nerves and lower your blood pressure.
Pets are often declared the cause of asthma and allergies. However, many studies show growing up with a dog can actually help strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of allergies linked to asthma. Scientists also suspect that by bringing new bacteria back into our houses, pets may introduce our immune systems to pathogens giving us (particularly children) greater resistance and potentially reducing the chances of allergies in later life.
There is even a theory that sound frequencies in the range of a cat’s purr can improve bone density and promote healing.
With positive physical contact, oxytocin, the ‘love molecule’, is released. This helps reduce depressive and anxiety-related symptoms, improves memory, perception of oneself and social skills. It also impacts the immune system, providing an increased pain threshold, and reducing inflammation in the body. Oxytocin has widespread pathways in the brain regulating a variety of functions and the release of other neurotransmitters too.
Positive touch is a great way to release oxytocin. It helps with bonding, feelings of companionship, and building relationships.
Pets must be given time alone if that’s their usual routine, otherwise they will struggle with loneliness themselves when old routines return post-pandemic. That said, research has shown that dogs and cats also see a spike in oxytocin when interacting with their owners, so it’s win-win.
Mental health benefits
Most things already mentioned such as exercise, companionship and stress reduction, all provide mental health benefits, but there are more!
People often find it safer and more comfortable to open up in the presence of an animal. The non-judgmental and loving approach of animals creates feelings of trust and calmness, making it easier to speak about emotional and personal topics, rather than perhaps suppressing these thoughts and emotions. Pets may provide security, proximity and consistency lacking from other relationships. For the bereaved, a strong attachment to a pet is associated with significantly less depression.
Teaching commands or tricks can improve self-confidence, assertiveness, patience and creates opportunity for cognitive exercise.
For children suffering ADD pets can help improve the ability to focus. Also, those growing up around pets have higher self-esteem, show more empathy, and are often more involved in group activities.
Pets are often viewed as a luxury. Although getting a pet is a huge decision and should never be rushed into, perhaps the benefits they bring to our mental and physical health have not been fully appreciated until these exceptional times.
Share your experiences and how pets have helped you through the pandemic or other tough times. Comment below and let us know anything we missed. You may also be interested in;