Scroll down to the very bottom of Georgetown Psychology’s staff directory, and you’ll notice a surprising face. That’s Millie, our Chief Comfort Officer — and yup, she’s a dog!
Dogs, without fail, have the ability to give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. But did you know that those good feelings aren’t just in your head, and they’re not just fleeting? The positive health benefits of spending time with animals are being increasingly studied and scientifically accepted. In fact, the positive effects of animal interactions are being harnessed by therapy practices through providing animal-assisted therapy — providing patients time with trained animals, from cats to dogs to horses.
Whether you take care of a pet, participate in animal-assisted therapy, or own an emotional support animal, there are many reasons why animal interaction is good for our physical and mental health. Here are some reasons why:
There’s joy when you come home to your pet. When you arrive to your dog, she’ll probably sprint up to greet you. Your kitten may brush past your ankles and meow for attention. Your rabbit or hamster might come out of their little home. Sometimes, your pet waits for you at the door.
Just like a friend, a pet is there for you. They not only share your day, but they’re sentient and responsive too. Dogs, for example, have been shown to be able to distinguish between the emotions of human companions.
“Dogs are amazingly social beings, so they are easily infected with our warmth and joy.” Clive Wynne, a psychology professor and director of the Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory, told National Geographic.
Having a loyal and dependable animal by your side can alleviate feelings of isolation, helping you manage anxiety, loneliness and depression.
And, like in all relationships, caring for each other is a two-way street: Your animals are there for you and you are there for your animals. As you care for the animal’s needs, you may even find an increased sense of purpose.
Just being near an animal can bring over you a wave of calm or a sense of bliss. Even more so when you are petting the animal.
The feeling is also scientific: Oxytocin is a hormone that is closely associated with empathy, care, relationships, and trust. That’s why some people call it the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone.” No wonder, then, that some scientists have studied, and found, a positive relationship between human-dog interactions and oxytocin levels. Studies conducted by a group of Swedish researchers show that oxytocin levels rose for dogs and humans as they interacted with each other.
Being near animals also has been shown to benefit patients who experience anxiety. Even a few minutes with cats and dogs can reduce people’s levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, Washington State University scientists found. The tactile act of stroking a pet doesn’t just benefit the animal either; it can also lower your blood pressure.
A 2018 study showed that veterans who took part in a dog ownership and training program for one year logged reductions in symptoms of post-traumatic stress, isolation and self-judgement — as well as increased self-compassion compared to the control group.
Studies have shown that owning a pet is linked to health benefits — from increased exercise (dogs love to go on walks!) to decreased cholesterol levels.
The increased opportunity for exercise and outdoor time is a major factor. One 2017 study showed that dog owners walked for around an additional 22 minutes a day — and at a moderate intensity cadence — compared to those without a dog. They also logged fewer periods of continuous sitting. Physical activity makes you stronger, and reduces your risk of developing conditions including heart disease and diabetes.
You’ll need to provide your pet with food, care and exercise for your day, which will ground your day with a daily routine.
But of course, not everybody has time for, or wants to own, a furry friend of their own. Not to worry: Non-pet owners can still receive the love and health benefits of animals. One way is through animal therapy.
Animals are increasingly being used to assist in therapy to help people cope with mental health disorders and broader health issues. Therapy dogs are trained and are helpful in a variety of ways. Sometimes, a patient benefits from petting the dog or having the animal used to assist with emotional learning needs. Sometimes, just the animal’s mere presence is soothing.
On some college campuses, therapy dogs are widely brought into libraries and shared spaces to help ease tension, especially during stress-filled exam weeks. They’ve also been brought to provide relief and love to nursing homes, hospitals and other shared spaces.
Georgetown Psychology’s Samantha Congdon, LMFT, and her very own therapy dog, Millie, are available to work with you or your child. She loves wagging her tail, receiving cuddles, and being surrounded by people.