Health Benefits of Animals
Much research has been conducted on the therapeutic benefits of human-animal interaction. While most studies assess effects of animal-assisted therapy, evidence points to the effectiveness of ESAs for the treatment of mental health problems. Explore why and how animals impact mental health below.
The Role of Oxytocin
Oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone, is a peptide hormone produced in the brain in response to sensory stimulation. It’s primarily released during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding, but also through touch, warmth, and stroking. It produces feelings of love, satisfaction, and trust and plays an important role in emotional bonding.
A study in Frontiers in Psychology found that human-animal interaction increases levels of oxytocin in people. Looking at, petting, or holding an animal activates the oxytocin system which has a nurturing and calming effect.
This hormonal change positively impacts mental health by:
Researchers have found that the presence of friendly animals, both familiar and unfamiliar, can effectively decrease stress-related symptoms such as heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels.
A well-known study conducted by the National Center for
Biotechnology Information (NCBI) showed that petting a dog lowers
a human's blood pressure.
Further research has investigated whether people would benefit more from the presence of a pet than a human during a stressful situation. One study found that adult women experienced lower heart rates and blood pressure levels during a stress-inducing task when in the presence of their pet versus being with a friend. Another study concluded that children with insecure attachment had significantly lower stress and cortisol levels when supported by a dog rather than a human.
Reducing fear and anxiety
Several studies point to the positive effect of human-animal interaction and observation on self-reported fear and anxiety.
One study exposed participants to a stressful situation in a laboratory—the presence of a tarantula spider, which they were told they might be asked to hold. The participants were instructed
to pet a live rabbit, a live turtle, a toy rabbit, a toy turtle, or to simply rest. Those who petted a live animal experienced the most dramatic reductions in fear and anxiety.
Another study investigated anxiety in psychiatric patients before electroconvulsive therapy, which can be a fear-inducing procedure. One group interacted with an animal for 15 minutes while the other group read magazines. Researchers found that interacting with the animal significantly decreased anxiety and fear.
Other researchers compared the effects of a 12-minute hospital visit with and without a dog on anxiety levels in adult patients with advanced heart failure. They found that anxiety was reduced most in the presence of the visiting dog.
Animal-assisted interventions have also proven to significantly diminish depression symptoms.
One study found a decrease in depression and feelings of loneliness in elderly residents at a nursing home when the residents had a resident dog for two years.
Another study found that elderly residents at an institution experienced a reduction in depression and improvement in quality of life when caring for a canary for a period of three months.