Most “how pets improve mental health” articles focus on scientific research. Dedicated to empirical evidence they highlight how dogs and cats act as natural mood-enhancers that reduce the likelihood of illnesses (including osteoporosis, asthma, blood pressure), cholesterol and stroke while helping patients overcome conditions like ADHD and autism. This is all extremely relevant information—that lacks one thing. Focused on the science such reporting ignores fully exploring the question of how pets create these results. The answer has less to do with biology and more to do with the magic of animal personality and behavior, plus our willingness to engage with them.
Imagine this: An animal walks into the room. You don’t know it’s there. Does your elevated blood pressure reduce? Do you instantly feel calmer? When we experience the benefits of animals it is precisely because of our awareness of their presence. More than that, it’s because we touch, talk, hold and watch them. The human/animal emotional transaction that occurs creates the health benefits and happens in these 10 (and other) meaningful energy exchanges:
Without even trying to provoke a response animals make us laugh, an action that decreases stress hormones, increases immune cells (and also antibodies that fight infection) and releases endorphins that create natural feel-good sensations.
Whether it’s the gentle nuzzle of a wet nose or the cuddle of a furry body the comfort pets provide through touch reduces stress hormones and floods the body with the mood elevating hormone, oxytocin, the bonding hormone that reduces cortisol and makes us feel secure.
As often as we allow pets to engage us in a playful activity we benefit from the way play triggers the release of endorphins, improves brain function, alleviates stress and depression, stimulates imagination and problem-solving skills and improves ability to relate and connect with others.
Sync to the resting cadence of an animal and you can meditatively tap into their sense of peace. The rates of your own heart, metabolic and respiration will decrease, plus reduces blood pressure, muscle tension and oxygen consumption.
With people you have to work at being connected. Pets automatically assume and offer connection, an experience that research suggests increases happiness and health, lengthens life and even enhances altruism.
The single biggest predictor of resilience is optimism. Interacting with a pet produces a feeling of wellbeing that makes life seem more manageable and full of possibilities. This paves the way for hope, a critically important element in healing disappointment, loss, illness and mental health issues.
Participate in your pets’ naturally curious attitude and you create an experience that research has shown helps the brain learn, improves recognition of unrelated information and increases memory.
Pets like to discover and explore. Watching them do that (or engaging in that activity with them) develops in us an openness to novelty. The experience of which promotes neurogenesis and can help develop a healthy novelty-seeking trait. This is one of many characteristics that lead to being happy, successful and satisfied.
In caveman days humans slept like pack animals for warmth and protection. Even in our modern world snuggling with a pet can enhance sleep and generate feelings of love, affection and security.
A powerful healing potion, the unconditional love pets offer can reduce doctor visits, depression, substance abuse, stress and anxiety, improve immunity and accelerate healing while also activating a part of the brain that keeps pain under control—all of which leads to a longer and happier life.
Accumulate all of these experiences in caring for an animal and we transcend our own ego-state by expanding our awareness to another’s needs. In doing so we develop compassion, a trait that has been proven to activate the brain’s pleasure centers, uplift mood, expand kindness, create a state of “elevation” and increase health and longevity.
Finding inner peace, resilience, self-compassion and self-acceptance poses great challenges; we’re often unkind to ourselves and more hypercritical than we need to be. Perhaps the most important benefit of interacting with a pet is less scientific and more experiential in evidence: They offer us entrance to a world of love, suspended judgment, joy and in-the-moment feel-good; a state of being we might not otherwise allow ourselves to acknowledge or accept.
In their emotionally connected presence pets can be a powerful de-stress mechanism by reminding us that the world is not as serious or complex as our human mind makes it. Instead, what really matters are wet noses, belly rubs and games, those things that create mirth and life-affirming energy that deeply heals both animals and humans in heart, mind, body and soul.