So it’s been a hard day. You got a late start, traffic was awful, work was stressful, and your drive home was long. You walk in the door ready for a meltdown and up runs your furry friend drooling all over you or rubbing up against your leg getting hair all over your nice work clothes. Yet for some reason you don’t mind the drool or the hair. No at this moment the day doesn’t seem so bad. The stress of the hard day starts to melt away as you tell your animal companion everything that happened during the day. They never interrupt you and it is as if they are telling you to relax and they will take care of everything. You even start to smile and things get better with each time you stroke their fur. Have you ever experienced this? If so have you ever wondered why animals can destress you? Let’s take a look at what happens in the brain.
Yep you know me the Brain Lady. That means I always seek to find the brain connection to the way we feel and there is a really cool connection in how our pets effect our brains. The health advantages are well documented. For example a 10 year study of more than 4000 Americans by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Stroke Institute in Minneapolis found that cat owners had a 30 per cent lower risk of death from a heart attack than non-cat owners. Own a fish? Well that can have positive health advantages as well. Experts from the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University and the University of Exeter assessed people’s physical and mental responses to watching fish swimming happily in their home. Watching fish lowered heart rate by 7 per cent and reduced blood pressure by 4 per cent. Higher numbers of fish also helped to hold people’s attention for longer periods of time and improve their moods. Then there is my favorite, the ever faithful, always loving dog. Just petting your dog can improve your immune system. Why? “Cortisol suppresses the immune response,” explains Roberta Lee, MD, vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “Anything that increases the relaxation response triggers the restoration of your immune response.” And what is more relaxing than petting your dog?
Increased levels of oxytocin also take place in the brain when you are having a positive interaction with your pet. Oxytocin can have a wide range of positive effects on the body. It can slow heart rate and breathing leading to a more relaxed state. That of course will lead to lower blood pressure. Then it can inhibit the production of stress hormones. When all of this happens it creates sense of calm and relaxation. Wait there is more! South African researchers studied what happens when men and women stroked and spoke with their dogs. The results of the study showed an increase in beta endorphins. These are natural painkillers often connected to exercise. The subject’s also showed an increase in dopamine levels. Both of these neurochemicals are connected to our happiness level. Another study at the University of Missouri found that petting dogs caused a spike in people’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is connected to an elevated mood. I could go on but I think you get the point.
There is an undeniable connection between our pets, our health, and our brains. So tonight when you get home after your long day don’t just pet or hug your pet but thank them for your improved health and increased happiness in life. I need to show this to my husband next time he says we have too many dogs. What do you think?
Julie “Brain Lady” Anderson