Puppies Are the Best Medicine; The Power of Pets

For an animal lover, hearing that pets can actually have a positive impact on both our physical and emotional health, is almost intuitive. When you know the joy, serenity, company, or comfort your pet can provide, of course it makes sense! That warm and blissful feeling however, doesn’t stand up to science. In this post, we explore some of the real benefits of “pet-therapy” according to evidence-based results from recent studies in the domain.

Some Benefits of Pet Therapy:

  • Lowers Blood Pressure & Improves Cardiovascular Health: being an animal-lover myself, I am liable to believe this without investigating, although the scientist in me is always curious. How can a pet actually contribute to improvements in cardiovascular health? Most studies point to the following evidence. Although few studies explain the physiological processes that may result in a reduced heart rate and lowered blood pressure as a consequence of interacting with a pet, there is a plethora of evidence showing that petting specifically (touch) almost immediately reduces heart-rate and has a positive impact on blood pressure over time for populations of various ages. Furthermore, an unsurprising result that dog-owners who regularly walk their dogs are more likely to meet the recommended amounts of exercise, thus reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease. Lastly, the stress and anxiety-reducing benefits of interacting with pets, have also been correlated with lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health in general.
  • Stress & Anxiety-Reduction: the anecdotal evidence supporting this claim is overwhelming. Dog and cat owners primarily, will tell you nothing relaxes them or brings them more peace and contentment than either walking or petting their furry friends. The research however, also supports this finding, as many studies have shown that while petting an animal, the body actually releases significantly more oxytocin; a hormone known to reduce stress and have both a calming and comforting effect, as well has produces less of the stress hormone cortisol. Again, it was touching the animals that provided the greatest benefits, as some of these results, though still present, were decreased when participants were simply asked to interact (talk, play, or feed) the pets. These findings hold across a variety of populations including children, the elderly, and individuals suffering from chronic illness. Even individuals categorized as “not animal people” saw the same benefits in most studies!
  • Improves Symptoms of Depression and Grief: the stress-relieving benefits of interacting with pets described above, also help ease depression and remedy the painful experience of grief and loss, however there is an added component with these states. Pets provide affection, companionship, and unconditional love. Many individuals will tell me that’s arguable in the case of cats, but cat owners know they are loved even when dealing with a diva or a sour puss. As loneliness and isolation are strongly correlated components of both depression and grief, pets can help fill a significant void in that sense. They also provide a reason to get out of the house (in the case of dog walking and veterinarian visits) and to care for something (or someone). This can thus potentially facilitate social interactions, and feeling accountable and needed by another living being. These facets of mental wellness might sound trivial, but are actually crucial to the human condition.

Simply spotting a dog on their daily walk from my lovely desk window on the Lachine Canal brings a smile to my face and lightness to my heart, and so, it doesn’t surprise me that pets have been found to enhance our well-being. Kids, if you’re hounding your parents about getting that puppy, maybe read them some of the research on pet-therapy! I’m thinking it might be time for Evolution Psychology Center to get a resident pet of its own.