Petting My Cat Makes Me Feel Better
Petting My Cat Makes Me Feel Better When I'm Feeling Down. Why is That?
How Being Owned By An Animal Can Improve Your Health
There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that owning a pet (or being owned by one!) can improve your health. It's been said that interaction with an animal can lower blood pressure, decrease loneliness and depression, strengthen your immune system, and simply make you feel better all over. And, having the responsibility of caring for an animal is also said to increase self-esteem, and just make you feel better because you get the appreciation and satisfaction that comes from being needed.
I think it's called "anthropomorphism" when we ascribe human feelings to animals. But I'm all for it! I truly believe that animals understand us and want to help us when we're feeling sad. Although I've had animals around me my entire life, I think I fell most deeply in love with cats when my dad passed away suddenly when I was nine. Our Siamese cat, Putty, gave my mom and me such comfort when it happened and afterwards. We thought he really understood. I've heard similar stories from others who have suffered loss and other sad events.
But, now to get scientific, although I am not in any way, shape or form a scientist. I've always been interested in how people can benefit from having animal companions, and among other research into this issue, I found a very interesting report, published in July of 2012, presented as a result of the 12th International Conference of Human-Animal Interactions, also known as H.A.I.
This report, based on 69 original and very scientific studies, concluded that positive interaction with animals can increase the production of oxytocin. This is a hormone produced in mammals - including people, cats and dogs - that is known as the "bonding hormone." It is produced in the pituitary gland and is associated with intimacy - often present during childbirth, breastfeeding and sex. :-) This hormone is also associated with learning and memory, and with helping to instill trust and empathy.
And guess what! To simplify a great big scientific study, this hormone is released when we pet animals, and the animals also release oxytocin when they are being stroked. It helps us to bond, apparently, which helps to improve human health and social interaction.
I won't get into all of the findings of the study, but here are some:
With regard to social interaction, a classroom of first graders was found to pay greater attention to their teacher if there was a dog in the room. Children with autism and other developmental disorders demonstrated more ability to play, talk and interact with an animal in their presence. Animal therapy was also shown to have very positive impacts on adult schizophrenia patients, older people with dementia, and people struggling with substance abuse problems. Prison inmates were also seen to have an improvement in social skills, and "empty nester" married couples whose children had left home also had more stable marriages with an animal in the household.
There was also some evidence to suggest that people who are looking for mates may be more easily able to find them if an animal is in the picture! We've all seen those movies, right? But people apparently are more likely to trust others who have animals, with this particular part of the study having to do with dogs. These animal owners were considered more trustworthy, and got more phone numbers from otherwise perfect strangers.
The presence of a dog in some classrooms was also found to decrease aggressive behavior among children, and to help kids develop empathy. In a number of long-term care facilities, the presence of an animal - and particularly one-on-one interactions with elderly residents - was found to reduce loneliness and depression and to encourage them to be more social with other patients in the facility.
In other studies in this report, it was found that interaction with animals reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, was helpful to patients with heart failure, and even reduced fear and anxiety among patients waiting to undergo electroconvulsive shock therapy. Alzheimer's patients ate more and gained weight, and even the introduction of an aquarium into a facility was credited with calming people struggling with dementia.
Other findings in this report suggested both children with developmental disabilities and children without developmental disorders learned more easily and quickly when a dog was present in their classroom. It also found that people with animals have better general health than non-owners - including lower cardiovascular risks - significantly fewer doctor visits, suffer less from insomnia, exercise more and otherwise seem to benefit medically from having pets in their lives.
I don't know about you, but I'm convinced. And another takeaway is that much of the good that people experienced came from stroking their animals - petting them and feeling calmer. The same effect was not seen when children or adults stroked toy animals. Sitting and reading quietly also didn't demonstrate the same levels of stress reduction.
So, we all need to sit and pet animals! It will make us live longer and more healthfully, help our children to learn better and fight less, and save our marriages!
Well, I know it's not as simple as that, but we can be pretty sure it will help. So if you already have an animal companion in your life, it seems like you are doing something pretty great for yourself, your family, and the cat, dog, bird or other creature you have chosen to share your life with. If you haven't made that step yet, consider it! We at Whiskers can help you find a kitty, or two, or three, to help improve your life and very possibly your health. Contact us, Doctor's Orders!:-)
And just for fun, here is a video from a local Albany band from the 1980s called Fear of Strangers. One of their hits was called 'Shopping for a Dog,' and touches on how it might be nice to come home to a kitty or a puppy when life feels lonesome. (Full disclosure: my husband was the drummer in the band.) But enjoy!
For a more scientific turn, here is a link to a number of scholarly publications that have examined these issues of human and animal interactions in great depth. Browse away, or just enter the search words 'human animal interactions' to view the many articles and studies out there on this fascinating, and very important, topic.