Man’s best friend. Fur baby. Puppy love. You may have heard of (or even used) some of these terms. If you own or interact with an animal, you know how they can turn around a bad day. Did you know that scientific studies are being conducted on the human-animal bond? Findings are revealing that animals can actually improve our physical and mental health.
According to Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, “The general belief is that there are health benefits to owning pets, both in terms of psychological growth and development, as well as physical health benefits.” Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, explained that “Researchers have only recently begun to explore this wonderful relationship and what its healthy benefits might be.”
The NIH has released findings of research in the field of human-animal interaction. Some of the largest and most well-designed studies in this field suggest that animals can help improve cardiovascular health. Another study concluded that pet owners seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend. Several studies have shown that dog owners may get more exercise and other health benefits than those who did not own or walk a dog. In addition, walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps people stay socially connected. Other research suggests that pet ownership may hold special benefits during childhood: Pets can serve as a source of comfort and help children improve their social interactions and develop empathy.
HelpGuide.org also has provided information generated from various studies on the human-animal bond. Studies have shown that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. Playing with an animal can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax. One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that pets fulfill the basic human need to touch. Petting an animal can rapidly calm and soothe individuals when stressed or anxious. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and most dogs are a great stimulus for healthy exercise (which can substantially boost mood and ease depression). Caring for a pet can help children grow up to be more secure and active. Pets can also provide valuable companionship for older adults.
Animals can also fulfill the role of therapy animals. According to the National Service Animal Registry, the primary purpose of a therapy animal is to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas and to people with learning disabilities. Did you know that there are behavioral health organizations in Stark County that have animal-assisted activities and therapy programs, including CommQuest Services?
So what can you do if pet ownership or animal-assisted therapy is not a good fit, but you would like to interact with animals? There are plenty opportunities to volunteer at various organizations in the area, including the Stark County Humane Society, various rescue shelters and low-cost spay/neuter organizations. You can also spend time with a loved one’s pet.
As indicated by the NIH, scientific study of the human-animal bond is still in its infancy. However, if you own or interact with an animal, chances are you may already know some of the benefits that accompany them, including the joy and unconditional love they bring.