POTENTIAL HEALTH benefits aside, I have always loved our cats — from rescues with their darling kittens, to my favorite Maine coon who needed a little too much grooming, and now back to rescues.
So I understand the allure of spending a sociable hour at Crumbs and Whiskers, Georgetown’s cat-visiting cafe for $15, or of taking their cat yoga class. But a holiday-only “kitten delivery” service, including a basket of kittens and a “sleeve” of macaroons for 30 minutes, seemed excessive at $99 – until it sold out in two hours. “We are thinking of doing it again in the future,” Ambassador of Human Feline Relations Ashley Brooks assured mylittlebird by email.
Because cats are “tough to manage in the laboratory,” according to Julia Calderone in Scientific American Mind, there’s scant evidence of their effects on human health. “The second you take a cat out of its own home, it becomes nervous,” explains University of Edinburgh psychologist Marieke Gartner.
But results on both dogs and cats come from a California lab focused on the study of oxytocin. Dubbed the “moral molecule” by Claremont University economist Paul Zak, oxytocin “motivates us to treat others with care and compassion.” Dozens of studies in his lab show that “the brain produces [oxytocin] when someone treats us with kindness,” Zak wrote in The Atlantic.
Oxytocin levels can shoot up to 100% when your child runs to hug you, or to 5 or 10% when a stranger shakes your hand, unless the stranger is very attractive, Zak explained. But when 100 participants in his lab played with a dog or cat for 15 minutes, “neither species consistently increased oxytocin in humans,” Zak wrote. And oxytocin increased for only 30% of participants.
What best predicted an oxytocin rise after interacting with a dog was the lifetime number of pets the participant had owned. With a cat, the opposite effect was true: “greater lifetime pet ownership caused oxytocin to fall,” wrote Zak. With dogs, previously owning pets “seems to have trained our brains to bond with them.” Dogs also reduced stress hormones better than cats, which “may tell us why people who own dogs are judged as more trustworthy than those who don’t,” Zak said.
Rebecca Johnson, a nurse and human/animal interaction researcher at the University of Missouri, suggests that oxytocin “helps us feel happy and trusting [and thus] may be one of the ways that humans bond with their animals over time.” Johnson told NPR that she believes that oxytocin may also improve the body’s “readiness to heal and to grow new cells.”
Dogs help improve cardiovascular health, according to one NIH-funded study of 421 adult who had suffered heart attacks. And among 240 married couples, pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressure, and appeared to have “milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend,” according to NIH News in Health.
Pets can also reduce blood pressure and boost productivity, according to two related experiments published in 2012. Among participants asked to come up with a list of goals and assess their confidence in attaining them, those who had their pet either in the room or on their mind identified more goals and felt more self-confident about them than did the control group with no pets, Tori Rodriguez writes in Scientific American Mind. The pet groups also had lower blood pressure while performing a distressing cognitive task.
A study of 16 women at Mass General Hospital compared brain functioning while participants viewed photos of their own child to those while viewing their own dog. Brain areas deemed important for functions such as emotion, reward and social interaction all showed increased activity for both photos. But while one region was activated only in response to the child photos, the fusiform gyrus — involved in facial recognition and other visual processing — showed greater response to own-dog images than to those of the child.
More formalized “animal-assisted therapy” (AAT) is offered increasingly in hospitals and nursing homes. DC’s Children’s National Medical Center has had a “Therapeutic Pups” program since 2010 when the director of the outpatient Eating Disorders Clinic began using a dog in therapy with adolescents. At the Mayo Clinic, which uses AAT for a range of issues from children having dental procedures to vets with PTSD, the therapy has “significantly reduced pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue,” according to the clinic’s Consumer Health report.
Several meta-analyses, which pull together existing studies, however, have found flaws in much of the AAT research, mostly due to an inability to “separate the feel-good temporary recreational benefits… from long-term clinical effects”, according to Alan Beck, director of Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond. But more recent, stricter research has established positive effects on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when interacting with other people in the presence of animals, two guinea pigs.
“Psychiatric service” animals, usually dogs, are also used for children with ASD. For people with an emotional or psychiatric disability severe enough to substantially limit their ability to perform at least one major life task, the dogs are individually trained to provide a surprising list of services, including “deep pressure therapy to minimize the severity and duration of anxiety or panic attacks” and assisting with “night terrors” by waking the handler or a family member, according to the PleaseDontPetMe site. (Service animals are legally permitted to go anywhere a person normally goes, including airplanes and no-pet housing. At a lower level of disability, “emotional support” animals are also prescribed but not entitled to all the same rights as a service animal.)
For anyone else who owns a dog and wishes to increase the social benefits of their pet, there’s Twindog, an app launched in early 2015 for iOs and Android. Twindog works like Tinder: you sign up with a profile and a photo — of your dog — and then swipe right to “like” other profiles or left to ignore. When you find a match — a dog match — you can move forward by sharing more photos and scheduling to meet: owners included.
— Mary Carpenter
Mary Carpenter is the Well-Being Editor of MyLittleBird.
Read more about Mary.