“When an eighty-five pound mammal licks your tears away, then tries to sit on your lap, it’s hard to feel sad.” ―
In Your Dreams
In the midst of this holiday season when we consider the many gifts and blessings in our lives, it is a perfect time to include the gifts of our animal friends and family…and to remember to show our appreciation to them throughout the year, as they so generously enhance our lives.
Indeed, dogs are treasured by us, so much so that one study indicated 78% of dog and cat owners, when returning home, greet their animal family before greeting their human significant others. Of course, our animal family members tend to race to the door, tails wagging, responding to our arrival as the most wonderful event of the day… Something to think about when considering how enthusiastically we may or may not greet the arrival home of our significant others!
When it comes to taking a closer look at the gifts of our animal family, researchers have coined a term, “Zooeyia” for the positive health benefits for those who have a pet or may interact with one. In fact, it has been established that even brief interactions with pets (for those who do not/cannot have their own pet), provide these benefits which may be physical, social, behavioral, emotional, mental or psychological.
A 2015, first of its kind, study conducted at George Mason University calculated a $11.7 billion savings in health care costs in the US related to having a pet. This multibillion dollar savings was based on reduced number of physician visits. When they calculated the added benefits of walking your dog five times a week, an additional $419 million in reduced healthcare-related costs were added. Researchers are working on establishing more specific healthcare cost benefits by looking at the scientific research showing a positive impact of having a pet on such conditions as infection control, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cholesterol, allergies, stress and blood pressure and psychological distress. They anticipate this work is likely to establish even greater healthcare savings than currently estimated.
While we wouldn’t tend to doubt the physical benefits of activity with our dogs, I’d like to share with you a little more about the emotional well-being our animal family provides. Last month I introduced the importance of the bond/attachment we can experience with animals and how this bond improves our “social capital.” Enter Oxytocin! Oxytocin operates in our neurological system to communicate and influence the activity of our brain and body. Specifically, it has a role in bonding, socialization and stress relief resulting in physical changes such as slowing our heart rate and breathing, decreasing blood pressure, inhibiting stress hormones, and supporting a sense of ease, comfort and focus. What scientific studies have established is that human-animal interaction increases oxytocin levels in the brain, especially so in interactions between a bonded animal and human.
Numerous other studies have also shown that interaction with a friendly companion animal has a positive effect on levels of three stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine). Additional studies show reduced cortisol levels in dogs who engage in positive interaction with humans. What we can take from this research is not only growing evidence of the positive benefits of the human-animal interaction for us, but for our beloved animals, as well.
Here’s to a new year filled with both the giving and receiving of the gifts of our animal family!
Robin Lewis, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist | Co-Chair, New Life K9s Advisory Board
*For space and interest considerations, if you would like information regarding the references linked to this column, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org