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 can 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.
“People recognize that there is something special about bonds between humans and their pets,” said APA President Rebecca Brendel, M.D., JD. “The animals we bring into our lives and our families play many roles from non-judgmental companions that we love to key partners in reducing our stress and anxiety. Americans clearly recognize that our relationships with our pets can have noticeable benefits for our overall mental health.”
Those who said their pets positively impact their mental health cited several key benefits, including
· Help reduce stress and anxiety (69%)
· Provide unconditional love and support (69%)
· Offer companionship (69%)
· Provide a calming presence (66%)
· Are true friends (63%)
Neuroscientists have noticed the amazing bonds pets establish with their owners. They have identified 5 Big Brain Benefits of pet ownership.
1. Slower cognitive decline
A study out of the University of Michigan earlier this year found that people who own dogs (or cats) wind up having slower cognitive decline in old age than their peers who don’t own pets.
“Prior studies have suggested that the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress,” said study author Tiffany Braley, a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.”
2. Increased brain activity
Studies have discovered that simply petting a real, live dog stimulates brain activity, compared to the experience of petting a stuffed animal that mimics a real dog.
“We chose to investigate the frontal cortex because this brain area is involved in several executive functions, such as attention, working memory, and problem-solving. But it also is involved in social and emotional processes, “the study’s lead author, doctoral student Rahel Marti, told CNN.
3. Better team building
A study from 2017 found that in work settings, the mere presence of a dog led people to act more cooperatively.
“Behavior in dog-present groups was rated as more cooperative, comfortable, friendly, active, enthusiastic, and attentive,” wrote the study’s authors, whose work is based in the Department of Psychology at Central Michigan.
4. Stress reduction
Another study, published in PLOS ONE earlier this year, found that dogs can tell whether people are stressed based on their odors, while other studies have shown that new pet owners wind up with a reduction in the number of minor health issues they have, and undertake significantly more exercise than those who don’t own pets.
Oxytocin, a neurochemical, produces other physiological changes.
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 these things can happen from petting a dog!
5. Better overall health
Finally, a German and Austrian longitudinal study of 10,969 people determined that people who own pets are the “healthiest group,” and “people who cease to have a pet or never had one are less healthy.”
There is a release of other neurochemicals 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 well-being. A study by University of Missouri researchers demonstrated that petting dogs caused a spike in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that anti-depressants try to elevate. That is a lot of brain action from interacting with your dog!
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. And a big hello to Rev – right now a very young boxer puppy. Your energy and enthusiasm keep me on my toes. All of you had different personalities but I loved and love you all the same. I am pretty lucky!
American Psychiatric Association. (March 01, 2023). Americans note overwhelming positive mental health impact of their pets in new poll; dogs and cats equally beneficial. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/news-releases/positive-mental-health-impact-of-pets
Montgomery,S. (January 12, 2015). Psychological effects of pets are profound. Retrieved from http://bostonglobe.com
Murphy,B.Jr. (November 10, 2022). Neuroscience says people with dogs get these 5 big brain benefits. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/neuroscience-says-people-with-dogs-have-with-5-big-brain-benefits.html