Before, During, and After the Pandemic - the Joy We Receive from Pet Ownership
Over the course of the 2020 lockdown, over 11 million U.S. households have gotten a new pet. The big question at the time was – why? For many people during this time of isolation and loneliness, pets provided companionship, emotional support, and a sense of security. Some owners even went as far to say that their pets helped them feel a sense of purpose, have more self-compassion, and reduced their depression and anxiety symptoms.
These findings come as no surprise to me. We have been dog owners for a long time. The house seems too quiet and clean when there isn’t a dog around. And we miss the affectionate greetings every time we come through the front door. Dogs are unconditional love. What happens to us when we create such tight bonds with our dogs? How does an animal become a family member?
There has been some research on this very topic – no doubt from a dog owner. As it turns out, our canine friends have the ability to produce oxytocin (a neurochemical responsible for the bonding between a mother and baby). The release of oxytocin creates a strong emotional bond between you and your dog. A feedback loop of continued gazing into your dog’s eyes will create more oxytocin for you and your dog and bonding occurs. Oxytocin produces other physiological changes as well. It can decrease heart rate, slow down breathing, lower blood pressure, and inhibit the production of stress hormones. These reactions result in a sense of calm, comfort, and focus. All of these things can happen from petting a dog!
There are other neurochemicals that are released when interacting with your pet. You boost levels of beta-endorphins (natural painkillers) and dopamine (reward hormone). These neurochemicals are key to our sense of wellbeing. A study by University of Missouri researchers demonstrated that petting dogs caused a spike of serotonin – a neurotransmitter anti-depressants try to elevate. That is a lot of brain action just from interacting with your dog.
There have been studies to confirm that oxytocin actually works in the manner proposed. This study was small: thirty pairs of humans and canines had urine collected prior to interaction and the level of oxytocin was measured. Then participants gazed and interacted with their dog for a half-hour. Urine samples were then collected again and measured for levels of oxytocin. The results were pretty astonishing. There was a 130% oxytocin spike in the canines and a 300% spike in their human counterparts.
This finding confirmed that significant bonding can occur over a short period of time. The mutual oxytocin release between people and dogs, aids in a better understanding of why service dogs are so effective for people with autism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Emotional bonds with our pets provide love, security, and happiness. Bonding is an essential survival strategy for human beings. Pets help us better manage our uncertainty. During a time when there were no schedules or appointments, or anything that looked like structure, pets provided that much needed sense of normalcy. Taking care of a pet requires walking, feeding, and playing at certain times of the day. Creating and following a regular schedule helps to reduce our fear and anxiety. Pets may even buffer the effects of stress. Most pet owners walk their dogs; walking leads to valuable physical and emotional health benefits. There was little mental stimulation during the long months of COVID. The physical exercise was a boost for the brain. Where you might have been feeling foggy from lack of mental stimulation, walking your pet allows for the brain to get the blood, carbohydrates, and oxygen it needs to function at a higher level. The act of walking also stimulates new neuronal growth in the area of the prefrontal cortex. This is the executive function area of the brain and is very vulnerable to brain cell loss. Exercise – like walking – can reenergize your brain and grow new cells that are important for brain function.
I always look for research to support the ideas I write about. Lindsey Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, wanted to find out why dogs have a positive effect on human health. On a weekly basis she would bring shelter dogs to a residential treatment center for teen boys. She was doing measurements of mood and emotions with the teens that interacted with the dogs and comparing them to a group of teens who played sports and video games for the same amount of time.
The boys playing with the dogs reported increases in cheerful feelings, attentiveness, and serenity. They also reported decreased sadness. Teens with ADHD, depression, and PTSD all showed dramatic improvement while interacting with the dogs. Ellsworth believes that dopamine (the feel-good hormone) is released when the teens are waiting for the dogs to arrive at the center and is released when they actually play with them. These studies show us why our pets become such an integral part of our families. And it can also help us to understand why we grieve when they pass.
So, to Springsteen, Orbison, Harrison, Jester, and Max – thank you for your unconditional love, the ability to quiet my brain, and many years of joy. The memories of all of you are locked in my heart. To Cooper, our rescue dog, you had me at your first doggy kiss when we picked you out. All of you had different personalities but I loved and love you all the same. I am pretty lucky!
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