Of course you love your pet, whether that’s a sweet pup, a clever kitty, beautiful bird or whatever pet brings you joy. But did you know these devoted companions can be a boon to our health too?
A recent article from the Cleveland Clinic explained some of the therapeutic benefits that really start with basic physiology. Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, Director of the Clinic’s Lou Rovo Center for Brain Health noted that “Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood.” Note that these benefits apply to having a pet of any kind and can be especially helpful for individuals with mental health conditions and some neurological conditions.1
In numerous studies and from observational data, we’ve seen the list of positive impacts continue to grow as more information regarding the human-animal connection becomes available. For example, the National Institutes of Health is conducting research (https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets) to see how pets can aid young patients with conditions such as autism or ADHD and to “tap into the subjective quality of the relationship with the animal—that part of the bond that people feel with animals—and how that translates into some of the health benefits,” explained Dr. James Griffin, a child development expert at NIH.
We know how pets can offer even more than unconditional love too. Individuals with vision impairments have long benefited from their partnerships with a trained guide dog. Certified emotional support animals (ESAs) help many people cope with trauma as well as daily life situations that might otherwise be impossible to navigate. Equine and other animal-assisted therapy can complement a recovery program for a wide variety of conditions and disorders and enhance these diverse experiences for patients. Programs like READ from Intermountain Therapy Animals show marked improvement in reading skills by children who read aloud to dogs. And there are studies that show dogs can even be early warning indicators of potential toxic exposures, especially important to individuals with chronic health conditions.*
How do pets contribute to brain health?
There are many ways having a pet can support the health of our brain and our mind. One Australian study enrolled participants who had a psychiatric assistance dog (PAD) that was trained by the owner and/or with a certified trainer. These animals assist with daily life tasks as well as to identify and interrupt undesirable behaviors through pawing or nudging the owner or to physically block contact with other people in anxiety provoking situations, for example. The self-reported information as well as the documented data, indicated by the decrease in significant events such as suicide attempts and an increase in ability to attend regular healthcare visits, attests to the positive benefits of these relationships and a need to further investigate the opportunities for more patients.2
Our pets can provide a sense of calm and reassurance even if we do not have an existing condition. How many times have you been sad or feeling down and your pet instinctively stays close to you, offering their version of a hug? Note too when you are happy and how your pet responds to that as well, which just boosts your own mood.
Many cat owners also report anxiety reduction when simply sitting with their pet; in fact, for some people who have allergies to dogs or simply prefer cats there are benefits too from having a lower-maintenance, but no less calming and inherently rewarding, pet.
But, if you have a dog, you know that walking your canine companion gives you the advantage of physical exercise plus connecting with other dog owners. These social connections are so important for all of us, especially during our current times when engaging in indoor activities is limited – but taking a walk in nature with your furry best friend is encouraged and so good for both of you. Physical exercise can help keep our brains healthy even in people who are at higher risk of disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
And it’s not just your brain that can benefit – the American Heart Association also cites studies that show compared to non-owners, dog owners had a 24% reduced risk of dying from any cause; a 31% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular-related issues; and a 65% reduced risk dying after a heart attack.3
Other pets have awesome powers too!
NIH research has also looked at the value of owning or interacting with all kinds of pets in numerous settings. Children with autism who spent even short periods of time petting classroom guinea pigs exhibited much less anxiety and increased their social interaction with peers. Teens with diagnosed diabetes who were given fish to care for based on a scheduled regimen correlated to improved management of their own disease.
There are so many different kinds of pets that can enhance your health and your wellbeing in ways you may not even have realized. Good for our brains, good for our hearts and especially good for our spirits, pets really can be your very best friends for life.
Dr. Suzanne Gazda
References and additional reading:
1 Cleveland Clinic
2 Lloyd J, Johnston L, Lewis J. Psychiatric Assistance Dog Use for People Living With Mental Health Disorders. Front Vet Sci. 2019;6:166. Published 2019 Jun 6. doi:10.3389/fvets.2019.00166
3 American Heart Association
For more about READ see: http://www.therapyanimals.org/R.E.A.D.html
Dr. Suzanne Gazda, Integrative Neurology