Pets enrich our lives, and there’s a proven connection between pets and our health. But do you know the science behind it?
It occurred to me that for the past thirty years I’ve never been without a pet. From the sweet brown tabby cat I adopted from a shelter in 1990 to our current trio of furry companions, animals have been a constant in my life.
We ended up adopting our first rescue dog, a shepherd mix puppy named Giselle, in 2007. I was less than a year out from a stem cell transplant for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a blood cancer. I was still in a dark place, distracted by the uncertainty of my health and my future – mostly how much of a future I might have.
Enter the dog. Puppies are a lot of work! But this was a family affair and we were all in. My girls were young, 10 and 6. The previous couple of years had been a bit tumultuous, as they watched me wage a war with a cunning and unpredictable foe. Raising a puppy shifted our focus from fighting off death to nurturing a blossoming life instead.
I thought about this again recently. We have all been spending lots of time at home because of the pandemic. We’d been thinking about adopting another dog, and took some time to find the right fit, given that we’ve got a dog who’s 7 and a 15-year old cat.
Who rescued who?
So last month we adopted another rescue dog. He’d been a flea-infested stray, thin and pretty scrappy. He’s about three years old. And he is pure, unbounded joy and energy. We named him Sprite.
He loves to play fetch and tug-of-war. Walks, hikes, playing in the yard – he’s game for all of it, any time. He wants to be wherever people are. First thing in the morning, he comes bearing a well-loved stuffed alpaca. The toy is awash with dog drool, and recently sutured from the repair of a lost leg and the loss of more than a little stuffing. Sprite always reminds me that it’s time to play.
Our older dog is definitely more active now that he has a “brother” (a good thing as he was getting a little thick). And I’m walking more – which is great for my physical and mental health, as I’d had a long stretch where I couldn’t walk any real distance without being short of breath or fatigued. The truth is I feel better than I have in a long time.
Those of us who are chronically ill don’t have the active lifestyles that we used to have or would like to have. It’s difficult physically and emotionally. Pets can rescue us – from loneliness and from the sometimes self-imposed lack of engagement with life.
They can release the grip of the anxiety that can incapacitate us. Caring for a pet improves our self-esteem. We feel needed. We have purpose. If you have ever had a pet you know that this positive connection between pets and our health is real.
So what is it about animals?
Dogs have been human companions for thousands of years. They descended from wolves who became domesticated – either by being actively tamed by hunter-gatherers, or becoming domesticated by virtue of increased exposure to humans, therefore becoming more tame over time. (There isn’t uniform agreement on how this domestication occurred.)
Regardless, the original relationship between between humans and what would ultimately become “man’s best friend” was forged out of a working partnership.
Why did it change? When did we transition from having purely working dogs to having dogs that sleep with us in our beds, receive Christmas presents (don’t judge me) and have their own birthday parties (seriously, it’s a thing)?
Why we choose to make pets such a big part of our lives
Inevitably the depth of love and attachment for our four-legged family members will be matched by grief and heartbreak that are equally deep. The average lifespan of a dog, for example, is between 10 and 13 years. Cats typically live a few years longer.
In spite of the short time we have with them, there are many reasons why we make them such a big part of our lives.
Animals live in the present moment (something we humans aren’t always so good at doing). Our pets are not afraid to ask for affection or attention.
Our dogs will choose to be near us regardless of where we are – happy to ride in the car, relax with us on the patio, be our security blanket when we’re watching a scary movie, or even follow us to the bathroom.
And out of all of the other cozy spots in the house, our cats will choose to curl up on our laps and drift off for a long nap. (Unless,of course, you’ve just pulled a warm load of laundry out of the dryer – because who wouldn’t want to curl up on that?)
Our dogs will protect us from an approaching stranger. They’ll warn us about the UPS delivery person who dares to walk anywhere near our home.
Their love for us knows no conditions. It makes no judgments. They accept us unfailingly.
As author Charles Yu says, “If I could be half the person my dog is, I’d be twice the human I am.”
This emotional connection, this unequivocal love – it all feels so good to us! Not the fleeting kind of feel-good tied to a specific event or an afternoon of retail therapy topped off by a cocktail. It’s the lasting feeling of well-being that we get from companionship with another.
Pets are good for our mental health
There are a number of studies that show that animals are good for our mental health. It’s been recognized for a number of years that animal therapy can help sufferers of PTSD.
You’ve probably heard about – or may have been the beneficiary of – the calming benefits of a visit with a therapy dog in a hospital environment.
But it’s not just the sensation of moving our hand across the fur of an animal that makes us feel good. In fact, just the act of taking care of another living creature can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. A 2016 study concluded that caring for crickets had a measurable positive effect on the psychological health of elderly people.
So pets are good for our health – that’s no surprise. And I’m not just talking about dogs and cats. We can include horses, fish, guinea pigs – virtually any living creature for which we provide care.
This increased emotional well-being is evidence of the connection between pets and our health.
Pets are good for our physical health, too
Having a pet can lower our heart rate and our blood pressure and improve our cardiovascular health. Part of the logic is that people with pets (especially dogs) are likely to be more active – playing with and walking the dog is a healthy, stress-reducing activity.
But there’s more science behind it, and it might surprise you. Turns out, a lot of it has to do with oxytocin, also known as the happiness hormone. It’s a naturally occurring hormone that plays a critical role in human behavior, as it is tied to arousal, recognition, social bonding, trust, relaxation and overall psychological stability.
The results of a study published in Science Magazine in 2015 reported that just as when we gaze into the eyes of someone we love, when our dogs look at us and when we reciprocate that eye contact with our dogs our bodies release oxytocin, which, in addition to reducing blood pressure, has other metabolic effects, too.
And what’s fascinating is that it works both ways – which is part of the reason why dogs bond to us. Who knew that a hormone plays a role in the connection between pets and our health?
Over the years I’ve had many pets. Each has laid claim to a small piece of my heart. Those that have passed on still hold those pieces of me, preserved for them, forever. But the beauty of being able to love is that there is always more love to share, and the landscape of the heart knows no boundaries.