By: Dr. Jack Stephens
How you feel can be affected by interaction with your pet. Simply being with your pet can provide positive health benefits because they affect your internal chemistry in ways that until recently were unknown to us. However, in the last few years several chemical indicators in our bodies have been measured before and after interaction with a dog. Previously, I discussed one of these, Oxytocin, but there are more I will discuss periodically, which are cortisol (stress hormone), prolactin (bonding hormone), endorphin (warm feeling or high feeling hormone), phenylethylamine (attention hormone), dopamine and epinephrine (nerve transmittors) and serotonin (depression related hormone). All of these natural chemicals in our body are affected in a positive manner when interacting with your pet.
As pet lovers we know that pets are good for us, because we experience an enhanced well being when we are with our pets. We look forward to going home and being with our pets. As humans we seek acceptance, unconditional love, understanding and uncritical companionship, which in our modern complex society is fleeting at best from other humans. However, we received all these benefits and more from our pets. Pets can become a safe haven of retreat which allows us to diminish all the negative chemicals that build up in our bodies from life’s daily duties such as, paying bills, commuting, work, and coping with complex human interactions. As you and I will come to understand, our pets help us to restore a natural chemical balance and avoid chronic imbalances which can negatively affect our health and well being. The way we feel about our pets has a physiological basis, which is currently referred to as, the Human-Animal bond.
Cortisol is the “stress hormone” in our bodies. It has long been known that when we are under stress the body produces a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol allows the body to react to an immediate life threatening situation, which allows us to react quick enough to avoid danger by fighting or fleeing. In our primal beginnings we needed to be able to react to danger without a lot of thought. This is our natural defense which places us into a state called the “flight or fight” syndrome that allows our bodies to react almost instantaneous to any perceived or real danger. Without this quick reaction mechanism, as a species we would not have survived. Cortisol has other functions which in small quantities have positive affects on us necessary to carry out our metabolism, such as glucose release to fuel our bodies. In prolonged quantities Cortisol can have negative affects on our health.
Prolonged stress, such as we endure in our fast paced culture can cause cortisol levels to be continuously high, instead of spiking in a crisis and then tapering back to normal levels. The desired affect of preparing our body too quickly react, will have the opposite effect of damaging our bodies if the spikes of cortisol do not return to normal levels. Interacting with pets reduces your cortisol levels, almost like an “all clear” signal to calm us down. Measurements of cortisol levels in our bloodstream decrease when we are quietly caressing or petting a dog. Although to date, only measurements of blood chemistry have been done in humans, interacting with dogs, there is other strong evidence that similar positive results would be present with any animal or pet. Certainly, riding a bull or confronting an enraged animal of any kind would have the opposite affect of increasing our cortisol levels, but only until the episode or dander was over. Then the cortisol levels would rapidly diminish.
People under chronic stress with continuous high levels of cortisol become immunodeficient. Our immune systems become deficient and thus susceptible to infections. An interesting fact is that unlike our pets which decrease our cortisol levels, our spouse increases our cortisol levels. This may be because as humans, we have complex relationships that require more effort and diplomacy for acceptance. We are always more vulnerable to those we are most close to, from which we expect and become more demanding of.
“The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue.”