Animal instinct – the mood boosting benefits of pet power

VavistaLife wellness expert (and dog owner) Alisa Burke reveals the research behind why owning a pet isn’t just good for your fitness levels, but for your mental wellbeing and happiness too.

Are you one of the owners of the 6.7m dogs and 9.8m cats kept as pets in the UK? Maybe you keep a horse or a share in one? I am writing this article as a converted dog lover, owning a short legged Jack Russell Archie who is nearly 4 years old and is our first dog. He’s a smart cookie.

Apparently the average dog can understand up to 165 words! There are many reasons our family is smitten with him, but it was only when I started researching this article did I realise quite how good they are for our wellbeing.

Here are seven reasons why you need to be super grateful to your four legged friend (and it’s not just the walks that are benefitting owners):

They make you and your kids more active. The American Heart Association (AHA) says dog owners are 54% more likely than non dog owners to get the recommended daily amount of exercise. Obviously this will depend on how often and how far your walks take you.

They reduce and buffer you against stress. Even gazing into your dogs eyes can increase oxytocin – our natural love drug that helps protect us from the damaging effects of stress. Research on horses and even cats confirms this effect – even in children and teenagers. Also playing with your pet can increase serotonin and dopamine which has a pleasurable and calming effect.

Besides these effects, an AHA statement suggests dog ownership may also decrease your risk of heart disease and increase survival rates amongst heart attack patients.

They show us unconditional love. No matter what sort of day you have had or how wretched you feel, your pet is always delighted to see you and welcome you home no matter what. They accept all of us. This ups our feelings of self worth and self esteem.

They are a source of emotional feedback. All mammals like horses and dogs have a mid part of the brain termed the limbic brain. This allows them to have emotional feelings and sense emotions in humans. A recent study in Hungary did MRI brain scans of 11 dogs who had been trained to be still and calm in the scanner; it showed that dogs have a similar brain process correlating with emotional responses as we do. Scans showed more brain activity in the primary auditory cortex area of brain when the dog heard an emotional sound – the same pattern as humans showed. So, as pet owners know – they do seem to feel our emotions and give us emotional feedback.

Your immunity will benefit as pets spread bacteria and therefore we get practiced at having a much wider mix of bacteria in our digestive tract and so are better able to cope when we come across a nasty bug.

They make us feel needed – this can be especially powerful for the elderly.

They provide an opportunity for social contact. Dogs are great conversation starters!

It’s not always possible to have a pet of your own or it may not be something you want to commit to (and they are a sizeable commitment) but that doesn’t mean you need to miss out on these benefits. Maybe you could ask to walk someone’s dog for them or look after their pet when they are away. If you are a pet owner do take a moment to be grateful to your pet and appreciate the relationship and value your pet is contributing to your wellbeing.

Do you have a pet who helps contribute to your happiness? Does having them around help you destress? We’d love to hear about your pets and how they help boost your mood – simply leave a comment below.