If you follow me on Instagram, you probably know Chelsea and I are big fans of animals, particularly our pups Flash and Oakley. And as it turns out, there are plenty of health benefits of owning a pet, too.
So how do pets help humans? For starters, there’s nothing quite like returning home after a long trip or day at the office to being greeted at the door by your pet. But science now suggests that the benefits of owning a pet go far beyond that. For instance, whoever knew cat purr frequencies induce healing? More on that later…
Health Benefits of Owning a Pet
Is having a pet good for your health? Yes! And you don’t even have to own a pet to reap the benefits. For instance, the Brooklyn Cat Cafe and The Meow Parlour, both in New York, welcome people to come and enjoy some delicious treats while hanging out with adoptable cats.
Similarly, for dogs, The Dog Cafe is a Los Angeles-based cafe where people can hang with adoptable pups while grabbing a snack. In Hawaii, on the small island of Lanai, there’s a cat sanctuary where people travel from all over the world to hang out with cats and get their cuddle on. Costa Rica is also home to a similar dog sanctuary with more than 1,000 adoptable dogs in every stage of life. The time, effort and love put into both the cafes and sanctuaries demonstrate the value people put on animals. Priceless. (And yes, I’m going to share a pet pic or two. What can I say, I’m a proud dog dad.)
Why is it good to have pets? For pet owners and lovers, it comes as no surprise that having a pet is beneficial for health and wellbeing. Social interaction is one of those more obvious health benefits own owning a pet. One underlying mechanism for the positive impact from social and physical contact lies within the dopaminergic pathway in the brain. Following interactions with an animal, such as petting or snuggling, there is an increase in neurotransmitters, specifically dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, that create a euphoric feeling (1).
A study done at the Veterans Administration Medical Center illustrates another way that animals impact social interaction. In the study, patients sat in either the presence or absence of a dog. Results indicated that social interaction among patients increased following the presence of the dogs. The interaction unleashed a cascade of “feel good” neurotransmitters, increasing the mood, pleasant emotions and overall mental health of individuals. (2)
Human and pet interactions, whether through physical contact or through visual stimulation, can create a positive, calming and soothing atmosphere. Physical contact with an animal, through petting or cuddling, activates touch receptors on the skin. These touch receptors then stimulate areas of the brain that are associated with reward centers as well as causing a cascade of activity resulting in the release of a variety of neurotransmitters (3). Stimulation of the touch receptors also results in an increase in oxytocin, the love hormone and a decrease in cortisol levels, the stress hormone (4, 5).
An increase in oxytocin is associated with stress relief due to a decrease in anxiety and blood pressure (6). A study conducted at the University of Minnesota Stroke Institute in Minneapolis illustrated that pet owners, particularly cat owners, experienced a 30 percent decrease in heart attack or stroke. (7).
The human and animal relationship also has been shown to decrease cholesterol and triglyceride levels (8). The decrease in cortisol, cholesterol and triglyceride levels in conjunction with the increase in oxytocin all contribute to aiding in the health of an individual’s cardiovascular system, therefore, decreasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Just seeing an also has profound positive effects. A study at Caltech showed that individual brain cells responded when a person saw an animal, but not when they saw another person, place, or object. The cells activated upon visual stimulation are found in the amygdala, the region in the brain associated with emotion and fear. Since the cells respond to any type of animal, it’s believed that it may be a leftover ancestral relic involving specialized cells that help the brain respond to danger quickly. (9)
In those times, the danger often being animals. Now, these cells are responding to an emotional response evoked by the animal that is often less out of fear and more often due to adoration, once again activating the dopaminergic pathway. It’s due to the activation of this pathway from varying interactions with animals that results in an increase in mood, a decrease in anxiety, improved sleep and an overall improvement of mental health. (10)
Several studies illustrate a reduction in anxiety and an increase in sleep due to interactions with animals. In one such study, 230 patients were referred to animal therapeutic sessions. Data was collected prior to and following the animal therapy session with results showing a significant reduction in anxiety follow the session (11).
This study illustrates the significant impact animals have in helping to reduce anxiety during times of duress, though more research is needed to understand the underlying mechanism. Another study conducted by the Mayo Clinic illustrated that 41 percent sleep better due to the presence of the pet in bed, while only 20 percent describe a sleep disturbance due to it. (12)
This may, in part, be due to the feelings of safety, comfort and the cozy atmosphere that the presence of animals creates. Improvements in sleep lead to a slew of other health benefits including warding off illness, increased memory, succinct mental processes, a decrease in stress and improvement of mood (13).
While the effects that cats and dogs have on humans are similar in many ways, cats have one crucial difference that puts them at an advantage to be more beneficial to humans than dogs. Cats purr. Cat purring occurs during both inhalation and exhalation at a consistent pattern and frequency between 25 and 150 Hz. While purring helps to soothe, calm and lull people to sleep with its rhythmic pattern and vibrations, purring has also been shown to occur at frequencies often used in therapies to heal the human body. Studies have shown therapeutic vibrations can aide in bone growth, fracture healing, pain relief, swelling reduction, wound healing, muscle growth/repair, and increased mobility of joints at frequencies between 25-150 Hz (14, 15).
Beyond healing an injury, the vibrations caused by a cat purr has shown changes in brain activity. A noninvasive study was done to measure the neurological response of the high-frequency sound and vibration (16). An electroencephalography (EEG) test showed increased neuronal activity within the occipital region (visual perception) during high-frequency stimulation, along with increased cerebral flow within the brain stem (region of the brain crucial for regulation: central nervous system, cardiac function, breathing, heart and the left thalamus (regulates consciousness).
Purring is often compared to rhythmic chanting, which is used in different cultures to aide in a healing process or to create a meditative or calm state. Rhythmic sounds, such as chanting or purring, causes a phenomenon known as brainwave entrainment. Brainwave entrainment is a process in which an individual’s brainwave frequency becomes synchronized with a periodic stimulus (vibration, sound, light). The vibration of the cat purr, in conjunction the sound of the purr can lull a person into relaxation. One study showed the effects of natural sounds on individuals. Individuals were exposed to sounds found within nature and cardiac monitoring along with imaging techniques was used to determine brain activity during tasks following noise exposure. (17)
The results showed that natural sounds, such as that made from a cat, were associated with a decrease in the sympathetic response (the fight or flight response to a situation) and an increase in the parasympathetic response. The parasympathetic response is responsible for the body’s ability to relax. Therefore, one is able to deduce that the vibration and sound of a purr from the cat has the ability to aid in healing as well as cause relaxation in humans.
Despite the differences, pet owners benefit from the interactions they have with their pets and with other individuals due to their pets. Following interactions with both animals and humans results in a release of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin in the brain. The release of these neurotransmitters activates the dopaminergic “reward” pathway in the brain, causing a feeling of happiness. The increase in oxytocin, the love hormone, causes a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. The effect of all this together is an increase in mood, better sleep, a decrease in blood pressure, and a more relaxed feeling.
All pets are created equal and are very similar in the beneficial symbiotic relationship they have with humans…. except for cats, whom the purr sets apart from the rest of the animal pack. The purr of a cat has also been compared to rhythmic chanting and has the ability to relax someone to a state comparable to post-meditation. The rhythm and vibration of the purr, much like chanting and even music, can have a brainwave entrainment effect. Even with all this knowledge, more research is needed to understand fully how animals; and especially the purr of cats; affects the central nervous system. With this knowledge, therapies could evolve in conjunction with conventional medicine to help individuals with certain mental health issues and the elderly.
Final Thoughts on the Health Benefits of Owning a Pet
- The health benefits of owning a pet range from improving social interaction and mental health to reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke.
- Health benefits of both dogs and cats are noted in the literature, but cats seem to have an edge due to the healing frequency of purrs.
- Other health benefits of owning a pet include reducing cortisol levels and the fight or flight response, decreases in anxiety and depression and more.