In commemoration of Valentine’s Day, I’m investigating the nature of affection and how human interaction benefits the health of both owner and animal companion. I certainly love my pooch and speculate that doing so helps my health, and I feel that he has a similar appreciation for my involvement in his life.
You readers of my Daily Vet column on petMD are well-familiar with my canine companion Cardiff and his battles with life-threatening health problems. First, Cardiff overcame three episodes of Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA). Now he is undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma (see related links at the end of this article).
This large dog in a small dog’s body has been through a lot in his years and is well worth all the effort in providing his treatment. Needless to say, both of his daddies love him very much and will do nearly anything to extend his life, provided that life is of good quality.
Though his illness is bringing an undesirable level of stress to our household, we get great satisfaction in seeing Cardiff get stronger after the cytotoxic (cell-killing) effects of his chemotherapy treatments wear off. His better interest in food, increasing energy levels, and engagement in toy play certainly reduces my stress and provides a calming sensation to an anxiety-provoking situation.
Recently, research has proven that our canine counterparts are capable of establishing an emotional connection with humans as determined by evaluation of neurochemicals produced inside our brains. The general health of the dog owners was shown to improve through such interactions in part due to the production of oxytocin by the pineal gland (the hormonal powerhouse of the brain). Oxytocin and other “feel good” chemicals are released during the positive interactions owners have with their dogs and through other pleasurable activities.
Oxytocin is a hormone that has a variety of effects in the body. Especially important are oxytocin's roles for mothers, by stimulating uterine contractions and helping the post-parturient letdown of milk from a mother’s mammary glands. Although it has strong correlations with female reproductive health, there are also benefits to whole-body health.
Dog's Gaze at Its Owner Increases Owner's Urinary Oxytocin During Social Interaction, a 2009 study published in Hormones and Behavior, showed that people who have dogs that gazed at them for over two minutes produced higher levels of oxytocin than people whose dogs gazed at them for less than two minutes. Those owners who received the longer canine gaze also reportedly were happier with their pooches than those engaging in a shorter gazing interval.
The study Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behaviour Between Humans and Dogs similarly shows the release of mood enhancing hormones as a result of positive interaction between people and dogs. Owners were isolated to a room where they sat on a rug and spent 30 minutes verbally (talking softly) and physically (gently stroking the body and ears) interacting with their dogs. The owners’ blood samples and pressure were taken at the start of the interaction and then again 30 minutes later.
The results showed positive correlations with the owners’ overall health, including:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Increased levels of oxytocin
- Elevations in brain-befitting hormones — beta-endorphins (associated with pain relief and feelings of euphoria), prolactin (associated with bonding between parents and offspring), phenylethylamine (connected to a sense of satisfaction in romantic partnered situations), and dopamine (linked with pleasurable experiences).
Evidently, the same time spent without canine companionship doesn’t produce the same results. The same tests were performed with the dog owner just reading a book for 30 minutes while not being in the presence of a canine companion. The levels of the above hormones and blood pressure were not similarly improved in the absence of an owner's dog. Although I really enjoy reading a good book (well, an e-book, as I now read on my iPad), I too prefer the companionship and hands-on effects of spending time with my pooch and canine patients.
Actually, during the process of preparing my patients for their acupuncture treatments I provide an extensive acupressure massage and range of motion work. During this 30-45 minute process I get quite fatigued, repeatedly yawn, and have sensed that the hands-on work I'm doing drains my good energy and transfers it into my patient. And perhaps I'm feeling the simulated effect of the time spent providing gentle physical stimulation and gentle words of encouragement (good dog, stay, etc.). I suspect that my general sense of calm is truly due to the extensive release of feel-good neurotransmitters.
The knowledge that I’m helping my patients have a better quality of life is certainly worth any energy-draining sensations. I guess the way I show my love for my patients zaps my energy but helps them in a way that counters any sedating effects I feel as a result of the release of oxytocin and other neurochemicals in my brain.
Loving and Lovable Cardiff
Dr. Patrick Mahaney