If you are a “pet person” like I am, reading a statement like “pets help people heal” is probably pretty much a no-brainer for you.
Of course they do. Yup. Duh. Next.
Right now, as I type these words, my almost 21-year-old cockatiel, Pearl, is occupying the other half (more commonly referred to as “his half”) of our writing table. While I work to earn rent money to keep a roof over his feathery head, he is happily chewing through a fresh bag of organic granola, foraging out bits and pieces he likes and flinging what he doesn’t eat all over the table…and chairs….and rugs…and floor. (Want to see him in action? Now you can!)
I find this incredibly healing on all levels, but today it is on a physical level where I notice the benefits the most.
As my ears catch the telltale sounds of “crinkle, crackle, crunch” from the nearby granola bag, my eyes instinctively look up from the laptop and over at his adorable small feathered body. I gaze at his cute curved beak as it nips out individual bits of granola. His round black eyes are so happy and bright and this makes my eyes happy and bright. I smile.
This sends the signal to my shoulders to begin their slow retreat down and away from their customary position lodged right up underneath my ears. Down, down, down, they descend until at last they are back where they belong once more. The shooting, throbbing joint pain in my wrists, hands and fingers, a lovely calling card from my thyroid who is clearly feeling under-appreciated yet again, begins to recede as well. I return to my work – this blog post – feeling re-energized and inspired anew about my topic.
Pets help people heal physically.
Here is another great example.
If you are older than zero years old, you probably know exactly what it feels like when your blood pressure rises. Sometimes it will make a gradual rise, arcing gracefully up, up, up until it peaks and begins to return back down the way it came. At other times (and this is the way my own personal blood pressure seems to prefer to do it) it will make a sudden meteoric rise straight UP, remaining there until I do. something. about. it.
Like get up and go over to pet our family’s dachshund, Flash Gordon.
The choice to seek out the warm-blooded furry family member for a good old-fashioned belly rub might be instinctive on my part, but researchers say there is something more than simple instinct to it. Patting a pet dog can lower a person’s blood pressure. Here, researchers point out that it isn’t enough to just locate some random dog in a neighbor’s yard, either. For best results, it will be your dog with whom you have an existing, established bond.
On a similar note, if you don’t currently have a pet and you have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, the researchers at Harvard Medical School strongly suggest you go get one.
If you have a heart attack, the Harvard folks state your pet improves your odds of surviving it. In all ways, your pet gives you a measurable longevity edge over your same-diagnosis non-pet peers. (For the record, their studies specifically recommend a pet dog, but I have no qualms at all about suggesting that a pet turtle, tortoise, parrot or other pet of your choice could likely deliver the same improvements in odds.)
Have you ever heard of the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction, or ReCHAI? I hadn’t either until today, but now I know there are actual degreed professionals objectively and empirically documenting the same types of totally biased pet-lover opinions I am sharing here.
I so love what ReCHAI writes on the Center’s homepage:
People and animals have lived close to one another for centuries. The human animal bond is the strong connection that they feel toward one another. The MU College of Veterinary Medicine is proud of this exciting center based on the growing field of research showing how the human animal bond impacts health in people and animals.
Dare I say – AMEN.
Changing topics, if you could have access to a totally legal free drug that would instantly ease pain, boost mood, increase compassion, facilitate friendship and basically make you fall in love with everyone, would you want to take it?
I know I would.
It just so happens each us already has access to this very drug right inside our own bodies. The drug (hormone) is called oxytocin and in some circles it has earned itself the nickname “the love hormone” for all the reasons I just described. But we can’t just tell our brains to send out a hit of oxytocin. We have to do something that makes the brain feel motivated to make more.
One of the things we can do that will make the brain want to make lots of oxytocin for us right away is to hang out with a pet animal. Here again, researchers suggest a pet dog, but I say who really cares what species you select as long as you love that animal and want to spend time with them? Best of all, you both benefit. Both you and your animal will get hits of oxytocin by hanging out together. Free happy feel good love drugs for all! (Yes I really just said that.)
Oxytocin is not just a happiness booster, however. It also boosts the body’s immune system function. A flood of oxytocin reduces cortisol levels – and cortisol is like the anti-love hormone. With a nickname like “the silent killer” you really want as little cortisol floating around in your bloodstream as possible.
And if all this wasn’t already enough, oxytocin also helps reduce blood pressure, promotes better sleep, eases addictive cravings, improves wound healing, aids gut function and so much more.
Bet you want some now. I know I do. Luckily, we now both know exactly where to go and what to do to get it.
If you are a parent or an expectant parent – of little people, not pets – the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that human-animal interaction can have a measurable impact on positive childhood development. The good folks at the NIH are calling this “the power of pets.” Specifically, they are investigating how such interactions may assist kids who have been diagnosed with autism and ADHD and probably other health issues as well.
And for kids (or adults) hospitalized with a serious health condition like cancer, non-human visitors are often used to help patients cope with pain – for seriously good reasons. Here again, we have oxytocin to thank. As it turns out, that flood of feel-good vibes we get at the click-click-click sound of little paws headed in our direction stimulates some of the same brain receptors that bind to an increasingly popular medical pain reliever – cannabis.
In other words, oxytocin is sort of like pot. And it is legal in all states and countries and we can get it readily from being around our pets.
(Can I just say….writing this blog post is making me feel so happy. It must be all the oxytocin.:))
Meanwhile, Pearl, my darling soulbird, is now perched on his wicker basket that his grandma gave him. He is snoozing, but every few seconds he will ease open one precious round black eye just to check that his mommy is still sitting right nearby and watching for predators while he snoozes. One guess how I get paid for providing this life-saving service?
If you guessed “oxytocin,” give yourself five feathers – Pearl’s highest rating.
Animals help people heal physically. You and me, pet lovers that we are, we don’t really need any long boring data-driven research as proof of this.
But some people may. If this describes you, sweet reader, please know I mostly wrote this post for you. Pets have made such a difference in my life I couldn’t even begin to measure the impact. It is true that people bring companion animals into their lives for all sorts of reasons, and not all of those reasons are excellent ones. Caring for a companion animal of any species is a huge commitment in every way – similar in many ways to caring for a small companion human, or at least I truly feel it should be viewed that way although I realize not everyone does.
Case in point: I would no sooner re-home any member of my animal trio than I would a human child, if I were to have a human child. That is the level of commitment I personally feel AND recommend when deciding whether to add a nonhuman family member to your tribe. Adopting this mindset may sound daunting, and here again I can tell you that it is. Just like adding people to your daily life, adding pets to your intimate inner circle will absolutely stretch you and grow you and challenge you and scare you and reward you in the same kinds of ways as adding a new person will.
However, I can also verify you will get at least as much as you give, bare minimum. If you are like me, you will also get so so so much more.
With great respect and love,