A friendly squirrel in San Jose
Credit: Lukasz Porwol on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

This week, I browsed a fascinating article in the journal Frontiers titled Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. 

Study BuddyMatthew Blouir on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericYou've probably heard about animals that help children learn in educational settings. Interestingly enough, in 2003, Kotrschal and Ortbauer found that grade one students paid more attention to a teacher with a dog than in a classroom without a dog.

It reminds me of this sage piece of advice: get a cute dog and go for walks where the girls are - dogs are babe magnets.

It seems adults and children become more socially engaged when there is a friendly animal present.

Doctors Foster and Smith highlight a few more social benefits in their article Why Man's Best Friend is Man's Best Friend:

  • Families surveyed before and after they acquired a pet reported feeling happier after adding a pet to the family.
  • Residents in a veteran's hospital had more verbal interactions with each other when a dog was present than when there was no dog present.
  • People living in long-term care facilities were more likely to attend activity sessions when an animal was going to be present. I think the same holds true with kids, I know my daughter loves it whenever there will be an animal brought into school.

A Friendly Animal Increases a Sense of Trust and Empathy

In a 2006 study by Schneider and Harley, college students reported to trust and were shown to open up more to a therapist with a friendly dog than when the dog was not around. 

In 2002, Hergovich et al. found that in classroom settings where a dog was present, children scored higher in areas related to the moods/needs of others and empathy towards animals. 

I feel it's an important life skill in our society to teach, encourage, and nurture empathy in children. There have been numerous correlations made between violent offenders and animal abuse.

Animal Interactions Decrease Fear and Anxiety

'De lobbes en het meisje' Buizenpark RotterdamFaceMePLS on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericAs highlighted in my article Need to Evacuate? Don't Leave Your Pets Behind, pets help children cope, develop life skills, and bounce back from disasters.

Hormones involved in stress responses such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine were shown to be lower in people petting a friendly dog.

Incredibly, in a 2010 study by Viau et al., cortisol levels in children with autistic-spectrum disorder, dropped from 58 to 10% after waking up (cortisol awakening response) when a therapy or service dog was placed with the family.

And perhaps not surprising to many pet owners was a recent 2011 study by Beetz et al. which found that in children with insecure attachment representations (often those exposed to domestic violence or instability in early childhood) had significantly lower cortisol levels the longer they were able to pet or hug a friendly dog.

In fact, the support of a friendly dog during the experiment had greater impact on lowering cortisol than did the support of a friendly human.

Which led me to think that if a child is having difficulty in his or her home environment, having exposure to a friendly animal (that can be petted, hugged or held) would help more than a friendly human - wow.

Sweet Mama Dog Interacting with a Beautiful Child with Down Syndrome

Published on Sept. 22nd, 2012 by Jim Stenson

What About Animals We Don't Touch? Do They Help?

starr-080614-8976-plant-Scaevola_taccada-habit_with_canary-Clipper_House_Sand_Island__Midway_AtollForest and Kim Starr (starr-environmental on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericYears ago, I read advice from a gent who had lost his job (since I had just lost mine and was clinically depressed). He mentioned what seemed to help the most were daily walks to feed some ducks.

I began to wonder, while researching studies for this article, if interacting with wild animals (or animals that we cannot touch) also helps us.

Sure enough, in 2006, Colombo et al. found that seniors who cared for a canary for a period of only three months experienced an improvement in their quality of life and felt less depressed. Considering that medication for depression generally takes six weeks to two months to become fully effective, I was amazed that caring for a bird had such an impact.

Which raises the question: does bird watching or being around animals in nature (that we can't touch) help humans emotionally too?

There is a growing body of evidence that show when people are exposed to nature and the creatures found in it, they reported having less health problems and less stress. They also said they recovered faster from illnesses than those who rarely connect with our natural world.

Cardiovascular Health and Recovery from Heart Attacks

You guessed it, animals seem to benefit our heart health.

A girl with her catNiels Kliim (kliim-stream on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericSince the '80s there have been studies that show heart rate, blood pressure, and recovery following heart failure were positively affected by interactions with animals (dogs have been predominantly studied with patients).

In 2007, Cole et al. found that just a 12-minute visit to heart failure patient (by a person with a dog) resulted in a decrease in systolic pulmonary artery pressure both during and after the visit than if a person visited without a dog.

In many areas of Asia, cat cafes are all the rage and are now popping up in North America. People who frequent them spend time with friendly cats and are able to pet them and reap the physical and emotional benefits of interacting with them. Clearly, increased oxytocin levels benefit humans during bonds made with friendly animals.

Just an aside, oxytocin has been considered a stress-reducing hormone based on decades of research but has recently been shown (to the surprise of researchers) to intensify negative memories and could increase fear and anxiety. Hence, I feel it's the reason that "friendly" animals and those that a person feels good around, is important.

I wouldn't feel too relaxed if my reptile-loving friends wanted me spend time holding their pet snake. But, it would probably benefit those who love snakes.

Summary and Conclusion

Venus holding onto her ballkees2rhearts on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericOxytocin levels do not explain all of the physical and emotional benefits involved during animal interactions. For example, observing fish or birds also has a calming effect on us without the need for physical contact which primarily stimulates oxytocin release. Ever see a dental office without a fish tank?

Important to note is that the subjects involved in all of these studies were either neutral or had positive attitudes towards animals. So it's fair to assume that people with past negative animal experiences or phobias weren't included in the data collection. I don't think it would be wise to pair up someone recovering from a heart attack with a dog - if they had a fear of dogs.

Most evidence to date suggests that the presence of friendly animals (both familiar or unfamiliar) positively influences our physical and emotional health. And, not surprisingly, these benefits are even more pronounced with one's own pet.

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