Those of us who own pets know they make us happy. But a growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can also make us healthy, or healthier.
That helps explain the increasing use of animals — dogs and cats mostly, but also birds, fish and even horses — in settings ranging from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, jails and mental institutions.
The use of pets in medical settings actually dates back more than 150 years, says Aubrey Fine, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University. “One could even look at Florence Nightingale recognizing that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill,” says Fine, who has written several books on the human-animal bond.
But it was only in the late 1970s that researchers started to uncover the scientific underpinnings for that bond.
One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Another early study found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.
More recently, says Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, studies have been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin.
“That is very beneficial for us,” says Johnson. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting.” Which, Johnson says, may be one of the ways that humans bond with their animals over time.
But Johnson says it may also have longer-term human health benefits. “Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.”
Animals can also act as therapists themselves or facilitate therapy — even when they’re not dogs or cats.
More than just a unique experience, animals themselves are a surefire way to relieve stress. Just being near or in contact with them can release oxytocin, a hormone to help us feel happy and speed up our natural healing.
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