When I get home after a long, stressful day, there's nothing quite like the burst of joy I feel seeing my dog wagging her tail excitedly as she greets me. She puts her whole body into wiggling with joy, and one of the first things I do as I walk through the door is pet her. I often pick her up and spend at least a few minutes petting and snuggling her. And you know what? It always makes me feel better. In those few minutes of petting my sweet dog, the stress, the frustration and anxiety of the day melts away.
And that feeling isn't imaginary. Petting a dog really does have a powerful, therapeutic effect that can brighten your day and boost your mood.
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Petting a dog elicits a positive response in our brains.
According to a study out of the University of Oxford, our brains react to positive touches in powerful ways. A positive touch, like petting a dog, registers in the part of our brain that plays an important role in regulating our emotions.
Humans in general are touch-centric beings. When we touch or are touched, that contact stimulates sensors below the skin, which sends a signal to your brain. That signal goes directly to the vagus nerve, and important nerve center in the brain that interacts with the heart and other internal organs. When we feel a positive touch, that nerve center can help lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Like positive human touch, positive contact with an animal can stimulate the vagus nerve, which generates a therapeutic chain reaction throughout your body.
Oxytocin, "the love hormone," creates a feel-good bond between you and your pets.
It's not just one chemical or reaction in the brain that makes time petting and snuggling your dog so therapeutic, but many. Along with stimulating the vagus nerve, petting a pup also releases oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is often referred to as the "love" hormone, and it creates feelings of love, trust and intimacy. Humans feel it in the relationships to other humans that they love, but they can also feel it with their pets.
According to a Swedish study in 2014, dog owners who spent time scratching or petting their dogs experienced an average of 6.6% increase in oxytocin. So, petting your dog causes a reaction in your brain that immediately makes you feel warm, loving feelings.
Endorphins, "the happiness hormones," increase when we pet our dogs.
Along with oxytocin, scientists have also found that petting a dog causes your brain to release endorphins, often referred to as the "happiness" hormones. Many people hear about endorphins because they are released during exercise, but these happy hormones can reduce stress and anxiety as well as lessen our response to pain no matter what causes them. Petting a dog is another activity releases endorphins, giving us that natural happy feeling, while reducing our feelings of stress and anxiety. No wonder when you get home to pet the dog, you often forget all your problems and just want to get lost in your sweet pupper's fur.
Along with endorphins and oxytocin, petting a dog has also shown a boost in two other hormones – dopamine and serotonin. These hormones motivate us and make us feel important, and that makes sense. It's amazing to look into those sweet puppy dog eyes and know that we're the most important thing in the world to them. There's no feeling quite like it.
Cortisol, the "stress hormone," is decreased when you pet a dog.
Not only does contact with a dog increase amounts of feel-good hormones in our brains, it also reduces the amount of feel-bad hormones. One of these hormones – cortisol – is known as the "stress" hormone. Cortisol is a chemical part of our adrenal system, and when we feel stressed, we often release too much cortisol. Too much cortisol can lead to digestive problems, insomnia, heart disease and other problems.
Petting a dog helps to reduce our body's production of cortisol and thus ease the effects of some of the everyday stress in your life. So not only does contact with your number one canine make you feel better, it also helps manage the negative health affects caused by stress, so you're healthier and happier overall.
The emotional and psychological benefits of petting a dog are so powerful that therapists are channeling their power into treatments that can really help people.
Therapists and other mental health professionals see the benefits of interaction with a dog and have started to harness it to help their patients. In one study, dogs visiting hospital patients helped reduce stress and anxiety. And another study in Brazil found that introducing dogs in a pediatric cancer unit helped reduce pain, lower stress levels and other depression symptoms. And the dogs also made the children's caregivers more relaxed as well.
Dogs can be an especially helpful therapeutic presence with older people, and therapy dogs are frequently used in senior centers. Depression is common amongst older people in assisted living homes, so many centers bring in dogs to help. Dogs can help seniors feel a connection with something if they're feeling lonely, and the general feel-good effects of petting a dog can help with depression, stress and anxiety.
So if you're having a tough day, go ahead and pet a dog.
Obviously, petting a dog cannot solve all problems. If you're experiencing symptoms of depression, you should see a professional therapist. But if you had a difficult day, feeling stressed, or you just need a boost, then there's scientific evidence that time spent petting a dog will help. So take a minute, and offer up some belly rubs. Your brain, and your dog, will thank you.