The role that our furry friends play in our daily lives is significant. As a mental health clinician, I find myself speaking about my clients pets quite often. When I reflect on the frequency of conversations regarding our pets and the positive effect on one’s mental health in my practice, it makes complete sense to me- and if you have a dog or cat you know what I mean! There is science to back me up here so let’s explore further.
Within minutes of a positive interaction with our pets, levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins significantly increase in both the animal and the human. Dopamine is a chemical in our that helps control the brains pleasure center. Endorphins help our bodies to relieve pain and also can prompt feelings of pleasure or euphoria. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “cuddle hormone”. It has various positive effects for both humans and animals, including the experience of pleasure, soothing and calming moods, as well as reduced stress. This all helps to explain why our furry friends love being pet.
One special quality dogs have is their tongues. Would you believe it if I told you that dogs use their tongues to enhance their sense of smell to further identify how humans are feeling? Crazy right, but it’s true!
Dogs have a keen sense of smell. It is their greatest sense and helps them in various ways. In interacting with humans, dogs will use their sense of smell to gather how humans are feeling based off of their hormones. So in other words, dogs can smell how we are feeling based off of the chemical reaction that our bodies are releasing. Believe it or not, but our dogs can smell when we are experiencing an intense emotion and sometimes can even recognize it before we begin to feel it. Some dogs love to use their tongue and lick their humans faces, or as we say in our household “give kisses”. As shared above many dogs will tend to lick their human friends to determine their mood. When the dog does this, they will also experience increased oxytocin levels, an action that many times will bring them even closer to their human.
Some other general benefits to a person’s mental health when interacting with their pets include increased relaxation, increased entertainment, decreased anxiety and stress symptoms, and decreases feelings of loneliness. Having a pet also brings humans an increased sense of purpose, a sense of friendship or kinship with the animal or increased social support. Pets also promote interactions and conversations between humans. Dogs in particular can motivate people to engage in physical activities such as taking walks. Dogs also can encourage children to be more aware in their social environments, motivate and stimulate learning, and increase playfulness. There is also research that supports pet owners can have an increased life expectancy compared to non-pet owners!