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  • Patricia Faust

Our Canine Companions - a Blessed Connection


In spite of all the stressful news we get every day, it has been noticed that adoptions of pets have skyrocketed. No doubt, there are many reasons why more people are adopting pets during the pandemic – get the dog that your kids have been begging for; have some company in an empty house; relieve the loneliness that isolation from COVID-19 has brought on us. It is not unusual that people are looking for solutions to this unique time in our lives.

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 that we create such tight bonds with our dogs? How does an animal become a family member? Why would our dogs relieve loneliness?

The Emotional Bond

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 are the very reactions to stress that we desperately need right now. These reactions result in a sense of calm, comfort, and focus. All of these things can happen from petting a 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.

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

A Solution to Social Isolation

Social isolation due to the coronavirus has resulted in cognitive decline, physical decline and loneliness in older adults. We were never meant to live this way. Research prior to the pandemic solidified the assumptions that pet ownership promotes healthy aging. It was discovered that pet ownership can provide important forms of social and emotional support for older adults that can reduce distress, loneliness, and improve overall quality of life.

There is a sense of responsibility in pet ownership that encourages pet owners to get up and move! Older adults tend to decrease their physical activity as they get older. This is detrimental to good cardiac health and brain health. When they have a pet that needs to go outside a few times a day, they actually go outside and experience the weather of the day. This may seem like a small contribution to physical activity, but they get some fresh air and may be inspired to go for a walk. Being in lockdown during this pandemic has prevented many seniors from even stepping outside. A pet requires that you at least take them out to do their business.

Many seniors view pet ownership as their purpose to get out of bed in the morning. A pet owner is totally responsible for everything a pet needs each day. At a time when all of their responsibilities have evaporated, taking care of a pet provides purpose – an element essential for healthy aging.

So Springsteen, Orbison, Harrison, and Jester – 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 newer rescue dog, you had me at your first doggy kiss when we picked you out. And, to Maximus – Max, your soulful eyes melt my heart. All of you have had different personalities but I loved and love you all the same. I am pretty lucky!

References:

Becker,K. (August 7, 2013). A groundbreaking solution for ADHD and depression – as close as your own backyard? Retrieved from http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2013/08/07/dog-human-brain-chemistry.aspx

Cole, A. Grow old along with me: The Meaning of Dogs in Seniors’ Lives. Int. Journal of Com. WB2. 235 – 252 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/542413-019-00034-w

Montgomery,S. (January 12, 2015). Psychological effects of pets are profound. Retrieved from http://bostonglobe.com.

Schwartz,R. (April 17, 2015). How dogs hack our brains to make us love them the way we love human babies. Retrieved from http://magazine.good.is/articles/those-puppy-dog-eyes.

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