When we are sad, stressed, scared, or wondering how we can possibly deal with whatever life has thrown our way, animals have the ability to make us feel better. Why else would there be millions of cat videos on YouTube and not one, but four, “panda cams” in the United States alone?
But while Grumpy Cat and Bao Bao can make us smile, our pets can actually have a positive effect on our health.
Studies have shown that interacting with animals (even fish!) helps lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and decrease depression. Scientists have also observed that interacting with animals increases levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has a number of important effects on the body. It slows a person’s heart rate and breathing, reduces blood pressure, and inhibits the production of stress hormones. All of these changes help create a sense of calm and comfort.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Rebecca Johnson, PhD, RN, FAAN, Director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, said: "Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body's ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier."
This healing can be emotional as well as physical, as oxytocin makes us feel happy, encourages trust, and promotes bonding. This helps explain why we literally fall in love with our pets.
At the same time, pets offer us their unconditional love—and yes, even empathy—in return. After a cancer diagnosis and during treatment, pets don't judge or try to give advice. They don’t ask questions or need reassurance that everything will be okay. Pets are just there when you need them, to show affection, to provide companionship, and to offer comfort.
In a study of therapy dogs at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, researchers followed 42 people who were receiving six weeks of intense chemotherapy and radiation therapy for head and neck cancer. Before each treatment session, all of the participants visited with a trained therapy dog for about 15 minutes. At the end of the study, the researchers found that although the participants’ physical well-being decreased during treatment, their emotional and social well-being increased.
It is no wonder, then, that even Florence Nightingale believed that “a small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.”