Wholeness Healing Today

Pets Impact Emotional Well-Being

Recently, a friend told me of her decision not to take her dog with her as she traveled to her winter home for a week.  She assumed maybe it would be easier with the flight not to worry about taking her beloved, “Rascal”.  She also fantasized that it would also be nice to have the week off without the dog care issues of dog walking and being on a schedule around her dog’s needs. She found out, however, what Rascal really brings to her life. She was lonely without Rascal there with her for the week.  Rascal “requires” her to get out once or twice a day to walk him. And when she gets out with him, they always talk to people, because everyone likes to talk to Rascal.  Rascal greets her when she walks into the house. She has conversations with him about her moments. She has emotional support from Rascal as he cuddles with her at night.  She has touch with Rascal when he needs to be petted.  She laughs with Rascal as his big eyes plead for another dog treat or another round outside. She has a presence with him in her life. She was so lonely without Rascal that it was not a vacation and time off without him, but rather, very lonesome without him. She will take him with her from now on.

Pet owners tell us that pets make them happy. And there is increasing research that shows that pets also make us healthier.  Maybe with the happiness comes better health. Some of the earliest studies in the 80’s found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. (Friedman, 1980) Another early study found that petting our animals reduced our blood pressure.  (Katcher, 1983) The current studies are showing that having a pet can lower the stress hormone, cortisol, while increasing oxytocin, prolactin and norepinephrine, hormones related to joy, nurturing and relaxation.  (Chew, 2012)  Oxytocin is that “feel good” hormone that makes us happy and helps us bond.  This would explain how we bond with our pets.  But oxytocin’s long-term benefits are being studied even further at the Research Center for  Human/Animal Interaction at the University Of Missouri College Of Veterinary Medicine.  Here they are looking at how oxytocin helps put the body in a state of readiness to heal and grow new cells, predisposing us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.  (Rovner, 2012)  So not only are we bonding with our pets, but they are putting us in a state of healing.

Therese Borchard writes of six ways pets relieve depression.  Pets offer a soothing presence lowering our blood pressure and heart rates.  Pets offer us unconditional love and acceptance which is why a short amount of time alone with a dog will make you feel less lonely.  Pets alter our behavior.  When we walk through the door, our pets takes our worries away with their greetings. We are able to quickly forget about our difficult day and come into the present moment where we have to pet them, feed them, and walk them.  Pets promote touch which decreases the stress hormone, cortisol, and builds our immune system, floods our body with that oxytocin, lowering blood pressure and boosting serotonin.  And pets make us responsible, which promotes mental health by building our self-esteem when we take ownership of taking care of our pet, and builds structure to our day.  (Borchard, 2013)

Animals can be very therapeutic whether they are dogs, cats, horses, birds, or fish.  If you aren’t up to having a cat or a dog but would like to add some spark to your life, consider a fish aquarium. Aquariums reduce stress and have the ability to lower blood pressure, calm the mind and help to alleviate anxiety. Alzheimer’s patients who ate in the presence of fish had an increase in appetite, increase in weight gain and decreased anxiety (Edwards & Beck, 2002) Fish tanks add a calming ambiance to your environment with almost a hypnotic effect both with the sounds of the running water and the visual of watching the fish swim.  And you can still name your fish, even if they may not be at the door greeting you when you come in at the end of the day.  The benefits are there.  Maybe we should all have a pet in our life.

It is no secret to pet owners what enrichment their pets bring to their lives.  Perhaps, like my friend, we decide to take a vacation and leave them home only to realize we missed them way to much because they add more to our lives than they take from us.

Works Cited

Borchard, T. J. (2013, May 17). 6 ways pets relieve depressioin. Retrieved from World of Psychology.

Chew, J. (2012, April 3). For expert comment: pets benefit aging ddults’ health, MU Researcher Says. Retrieved from News Bureau University of Missouri.

Edwards, N. &. (2002). Animal-assisted therapy and nutrition in alzheimer’s disease. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 697-712.

Friedman, E. K. (1980). Animal companions and one-year survival after discharge from a coronary care unit. Public Health Reports, 95, 307-312.

Katcher, A. &. (1983). New perspective on our lives with companion animals. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rovner, J. (2012, March 05).   Pet therapy: how animal and humans heal each other. Retrieved from www.NPR.Org.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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