Pet therapists: How our pets improve our mental health

I am definitely a dog person! My mini-dachshund Frank is my furry adventure buddy – I can’t imagine a day without him and I love taking him on long walks as much as I enjoy chilling out with him on the sofa.

We know from our experiences with our four-legged friends that animals both great and small can brighten up a day, but I wanted to dive deeper into the science behind our pet’s mood-boosting abilities.

The Pet Effect

Any pet owner will tell you that living with a pet comes with tangible benefits of companionship, love and affection. Being greeted at your door by a wet nose and a wagging tail, or a friendly meow and a head-bump brings a smile to people’s faces, helping melt away the day’s stresses. Even for those who don’t have a pet, it’s hard to feel anything but happy when you are cuddling with a furry (and sometimes not so furry) friend.

Research has shown that when we pet and play with a dog your brain releases feel-good chemicals including endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. This study also showed that your dog also experiences the same mood-boosting brain chemical release when we interact with them, so they equally enjoy their play sessions!

Dogs have hijacked our bonding system!

If you think of your pup as your “fur baby,” science has your back as well. When our doggy friends gaze lovingly into our eyes they activate the release of the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin in our brains. This is the same hormonal response that bonds us to human infants, and oxytocin also influences the release of those feel good chemicals dopamine and serotonin! And it works both ways – dogs get the same release of oxytocin when this “mutual gaze” is shared. This deep bonding effect between us and our puppy pals could explain how dogs became “(wo)man’s best friend” thousands of years ago. In fact, this oxytocin release in their brains is particularly linked with their abilities to pick up on our subtle social cues, like where food rewards could be hidden in a memory game, but it also makes them highly attuned to our emotions.

But to understand even more about our bond with our dogs and how dog brains work, neuroscientists took this one step further by scanning the brains of dogs with functional MRI (fMRI) to look at changes in brain activity (inferred by changes to blood flow in the brain). Researchers found that the caudate nucleus (a key part of the brain’s reward system) and brain regions linked to emotion and attachment processing became activated most when dogs were shown pictures of their owners (primary caregivers).

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But let’s just hold up a little, we might think of our canine companions as our fur babies, but do our dogs really think we are their pet parents? In truth, dogs likely connect our loving gazes with all the other great things we do with and for them – like providing their food, adventures outside and play times, rather than being their parent. We are more like their really fun housemate that also cooks dinner for them!

Pet therapists

It’s probably not surprising that I talk to Frank… He might not talk back but I know he’s listening to me, and when I’m having a bad day his puppy cuddles can make me feel better than any words could! Our pets are highly intuitive and often provide us with comfort in times of need.

Holding and stroking a pet is calming for many people, and this is why hospitals, nursing homes airports and schools have used therapy dogs and emotional support animals to not only brighten people’s days, but to help ease our minds when we are stressed out. Scientists have noted that a play and snuggle session with your furry friend decreases levels of the stress-hormone cortisol, leaving us feeling calmer and happier. With chronic stress at the core of so many diseases like heart disease, depression and anxiety – our pet cuddles might actually be a magic pill. One study showed that dog owners performed much better in stressful situations – including a surprise math quiz – when their dog was present in the exam room.

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So it is scientifically proven that spending time snuggling with our pups (or kitties) can melt our stress away!

Prescription puppers

The COVID-19 lockdowns brought with them mental health struggles for multitudes of people. Suddenly shifting to working from home, enforced separation geographically from our loved ones during lockdowns and travel restrictions, and the loss of employment left people scrambling to make the most of situations while being exposed to huge unprecedented uncertainties. Having a pet around can help you feel less alone in times of sadness, and can provide a welcome distraction from negative thoughts. Unsurprisingly, many people adopted new furry family members as suddenly they had much more time at home. But can a pet help with anxiety? Many pet owners know that when our feelings get all-consuming and you’re freaking out, having your pet to snuggle with can really help bring you back down.

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Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) was developed by medical professionals and researchers to help relieve depression, reduce anxiety and bring a sense of well-being and purpose to people who are suffering in some way. Because interacting with animals releases those feel good brain chemicals, AAT can help people in many ways, from boosting mood in elderly nursing home residents who can’t have full time pet buddies, to helping children with autism improve their social function.

Pets for trauma survivors

Dogs and cats seem to instinctually know when sad or scared people need comfort. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition characterized by intense anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance and social withdrawal. There are also very few effective treatments for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We know that our pets can increase oxytocin, reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and boost serotonin in our brains, so pet therapy for PTSD is becoming more common.  It has been found that service-people with PTSD who helped with training military dogs and horses had fewer symptoms, although the science here is currently in its infancy.

The science is in – pets are great for your brain!

Everyone has their own coping mechanisms for feeling down, but science shows that having a pet can help to curb feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.

More and more the importance of pets in maintaining good mental health is being recognised, and even specially trained service animals are being used to assist with mental health conditions including bipolar disorder, PTSD and epilepsy.

Scientists have spoken and say that our pets enrich our lives beyond just keeping us active – our furry friends have incredible mental health benefits! Hopefully more research can be carried out to truly demonstrate the abilities of animals to improve mood.

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