Researchers are finally proving what pet owners have known for years: there are extensive health benefits to spending time with a furry friend. Whether you are a cat person or a dog person, studies show that a little fuzz therapy reduces physical pain, including the pain associated with chronic musculoskeletal conditions. It also decreases stress and improves overall health. In fact, one study demonstrates that a few minutes spent with a therapy dog in an outpatient pain clinic offered a clinically meaningful reduction in pain for a full 23 percent of participating patients compared to those who simply sat in a waiting room before their appointments.
How Pets Reduce Pain
A review of more than 150 existing studies gives us a better understanding of how the bond between people and pets, particularly dogs, works to reduce pain and improve overall health. The theory is that spending time with animals, especially your own pet, increases the levels of important pain-relieving chemicals in the body. For example, the blood levels of oxytocin and dopamine in study participants rose after 5 to 24 minutes of petting a dog. Oxytocin increases individual pain thresholds, and dopamine is associated with pleasurable feelings. More importantly, disorders related to dopamine levels have been shown to increase the perception of pain in those with musculoskeletal issues. The changes in body chemistry associated with pet therapy are similar to those that orthopedic doctors attempt to achieve through medication.
Other Health Benefits of Pet Interactions
In addition to offering direct relief from physical pain, spending time with pets supports a variety of other health benefits. Aside from the extra steps you get from walking a dog regularly, dog owners experience more social interaction. The canine community tends to be tight-knit, and folks enjoy talking about their dogs in the same way grandparents brag about their grandchildren. In one study, a woman tested how strangers responded to her with and without a dog. Far more people initiated a conversation with her when she had a Labrador retriever at her side than they did under other conditions.
Owning a pet is a big commitment, and the responsibility can discourage some from adopting a cat or dog. If you are ready to bring a new family member into your home, your local animal shelter can match you with a companion that will fit your lifestyle. If this isn’t the right time for adoption, consider volunteering with animal rescue organizations. Homeless pets are more adoptable when they have good social skills, so when you spend time with the cats and dogs waiting for new homes, both you and the critters will benefit.