On the Mind: How Pets Help Our Brains

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On the Mind: How Pets Help Our Brains

This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.

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When I felt stressed while working at home today, my cat walked into the room a few minutes later and chirped a “hello.” In fact, while I began writing a new story, she crawled into my lap and purred, making me pause to pet her for a few minutes before moving my laptop to continue my work. I breathed a sigh of relief and continued typing with a happier mindset.

That simple scenario can be multiplied many times over for pet owners who have stories of pets comforting them during grief, making them laugh after a hard day, or simply cuddling them through the night. More than 180 million companion animals, as they’re called in scientific research, live with us in U.S. households. It seems obvious that the furry friends we’ve chosen to bring into our lives would make us happy, but the science shows that it goes deeper — and the connection comes straight from our brains.

Studies Say

For about a decade, scientists have worked with the idea that pets release oxytocin, or the neurochemical of love, in our brains when we see them. The hormone makes us feel happy and trusting, which contributes to the human-animal bond. In recent years, they’ve pushed that idea by investigating how exactly we benefit from owning pets and whether those without pets (such as nursing home residents and college students in dorms) could benefit from occasional visits.

On the other hand, scientists have also studied how owning pets can be harmful. The studies are fewer, but they’re there. Pets can contribute to allergy problems, injuries and problems with infants who pick up germs. If you’re really interested, there’s a fascinating string of research that explains how infants in homes with pets may be exposed to bacteria associated with childhood obesity and allergies.

Key Takeaways

Although the research field isn’t broad in this area, we can still learn several updates about pets and our brains from the past year.

1. Pets boost our brain chemicals.

Our happiness hormones lift when we see familiar faces at home, which typically includes higher oxytocin levels that make us fall in love. At the same time, pets lower our cortisol levels, which are often linked with stress and weight gain, and our alpha-amylase levels, which are proteins linked with starch digestion in the body. Scientists aren’t sure what exactly causes the chemical release, but it’s likely through a familiar connection. “The benefits of companion animals are most likely to be through reduction in depression, anxiety, and social isolation,” said Pamela Schreiner of the Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in a 2016 study about the impact of pets on our health.

2. They also keep our mental health conditions in check.

Pets help owners with long-term mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety in several ways, especially if the pets are viewed as family members who offer emotional support or help owners manage their everyday lives. In certain cases, pets may be the closest connection an owner may have at home, which can distract them from mental health symptoms such as suicidal thoughts or panic attacks. In the study, pets also gave a reason for owners to do tasks during the day or care for something other than themselves — After all, pets must be fed, walked and pet. “Pets should be considered a main rather than a marginal source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems, and this has implications for the planning and delivery of mental health services,” United Kingdom researchers wrote in December 2016.

3. By helping our minds, pets help our hearts.

During the past two years, pet ownership research has heavily focused on cardiovascular disease. Several studies in both the U.S. and China showed a fascinating correlation between owning pets and a lower risk of dying from heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Published in September 2016 by researchers mostly based in Georgia, the study accounted for physical activity, which is fascinating to observe in a state with higher obesity, diabetes and poor heart health rates. Also, the greater health benefits were associated with having a cat rather than a dog. “The protection pets confer may not be from physical activities, but possibly due to personality of the pet owners or stress-relieving effects of animal companionship,” the study authors wrote.

In the Chinese study, however, having a dog was better for coronary artery disease, especially when owners had pets longer and played with them more each day. And in many studies, physical activity increases are associated with dog ownership, Schreiner explained. “Pet ownership is also a marker of better socioeconomic status and family stability,” so heart health benefits may actually come from better education and income, she added.

4. Pets help our brains as we age.

Dementia patients often face memory, anxiety and behavioral issues as their symptoms develop, which can make their social lives and family time upsetting and stressful. In recent years, researchers have turned to pet therapy as a way to create an emotionally beneficial bond. The most innovative studies are now looking at robotic pets with dementia patients and how they may give similar positive effects without the negative aspects of allergies, injuries, or requirements for care. A group of Texas researchers found this year that a group of patients — with an average age of 83 — had lower pulse rates, pain medication and psychoactive medication during the 12-week study with PARO, a robotic pet that looks like a fluffy white seal.

5. Pets help our brains as we grow up, too.

New research shows that childhood pet ownership has major connections to emotional, behavioral, cognitive, educational and social development outcomes. In particular, pets help kids with self-esteem, loneliness, perspective-taking abilities and social interaction, a group of UK and New York professors concluded in February 2017 after conducting a systematic review of 22 studies about childhood pet ownership. On top of that, several Scottish researchers reported in May that childhood attachment to pets was associated with humane behavior, reduced aggression, and better well-being because they learn how to care for a pet.

In fact, children with autism spectrum disorder may particularly benefit from having a pet. Researchers in the UK created the Lincoln Autism Pet Dog Impact Scale to measure how individual differences of the child (such as age, disability level and language abilities) may change how effective having a dog would be for a family with an autistic child.

Although many of these areas are still in the early development stages, they’re on the way to telling us how our pets affect our brains and our hearts and how we should value pets for the ways they boost our health.

Image: Vancouver Film School, Flickr, CC-BY


Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.

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