The Healing Power of Animals

I should start out by acknowledging I’m the last person on earth who should be writing this post.   While I certainly have compassion for animals, I have never been an actual “animal person”. Litsa’s the animal person, I’m the kid person; it’s usually best if we stick to our roles.

Before you go thinking I’m an awful person, I’m not. My attitude on animals is clearly the product of childhood trauma. You see my parents refused to get me and my many brothers and sisters a dog and instead appeased us with a string of small pets like outdoor cats, mice, rats, fish, frogs, gerbils, turtles, and iguanas.  You will note that many of these pets are of the slimy, scaly or rodent variety and they almost always wound up dead or on the lam.

For most of my parental life I’ve managed to maintain a pet-free household. My perception of the hassle – escape attempts, vets, mess, chewing, and fur – far outweighed any potential benefits I could see.  I’ve always found comfort in being able to walk past the pet aisle at the grocery store without having to load an 8 pound bag of dog food onto my already too full shopping cart.

I was firm in my conviction until Christmastime when my daughters launched operation: Get Puppy. They asked so often yet so sweetly that I had to consider.  Every dog owner I spoke to said, “They need a puppy!  They make your life better!” and somewhere in the back of my mind I saw my 7 year old self staring unenthusiastically at my tiny pet frog swimming back and forth through murky aquarium water.

You can probably guess what happened next. Everyone, meet Pepper.

healing power of pets

Through my interaction with Pepper I have come to believe that puppies are the product of sorcery (the good kind). How else can you explain the spell this dog has cast on everyone in the house? She is an undeniable pain 65% of the time and yet she’s the most beloved object of everyone’s affection. I wish I could boast similar statistics.

She makes us laugh when we’re grouchy, she soothes the kids when they’re sad, and even when she’s done something really agitating I find myself cuddling her and calling her “baby”. I used to be unmoved by even the cutest puppy calendar, I don’t understand what’s happening to me?!? Naturally I turned to the Internet to investigate.

Most of you probably already knew this, but it turns out that pets are kind of good for our emotional and physical wellbeing; you might even say they help us cope during times of hardship and struggle. Truthfully I’m not new to this idea, I’ve heard many people count petting, playing, or being around animals as a coping skill.  Although I knew the research supported this thought, I never quite got it until now.

Humans love animals in ways that are similar to how they love their children. From an evolutionary standpoint this may prove puzzling to some.  Why would humans dedicate resources like time, money, love, and protection to a member of another species unless they received something in return?  Obviously pet ownership does nothing to continue our own species, but perhaps this relationship is made mutualistic by more subtle benefits.  Let’s take a few moments to look at all the reasons why a person might benefit from owning, loving, or spending time with an animal.

The Healing Power of Animals

Emotional Benefits:

One word: hormones. Research has shown that people who interact with animals may experience increased levels of oxytocin (otherwise known as the “trust hormone”, “love hormone”, or “bonding hormone”).  In fact one study found that the simple act of making eye contact with their dogs when they got home from work increased oxytocin in a sample of women. On an emotional level oxcytocin helps mothers bond with their newborn babies, human couples establish a a greater sense of intimacy and it has been linked to increased feelings of self esteem, optimism and trust.

In addition to oxytocin there is some evidence to suggest that interaction with a friendly animal can decease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and raise levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine.  Taking these benefits into account, it’s no wonder that we’re now finding animals involved with a number of therapeutic interventions.  You may have even heard of programs that bring animals directly into hospitals to help cheer up, calm and distract patients.

Physical Benefits:

Pet ownership has been linked to physical benefits such as reduced risk for heart disease, lower stress levels, fewer doctors visits, lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure.

Again we can refer back to hormones and chemicals like oxytocin, cortisol and dopamine. Oxytocin has been found to relive pains like headaches, cramps and overall body aches.  Lower levels of cortisol can account for lower stress levels and contributes to some of those heart and blood pressure related benefits.  

Social Benefits:

In 2013 Leslie Irvine, a Sociologist at the University of Colorado interviewed “pet guardians” experiencing homelessness in Boulder Colorado.  She found that many of those she interviewed credited their animal with changing or saving their life.  One woman stated her dog helped her quit heroin, leave an abusive relationship, and improve her HIV status.  Another man said his dog has helped him combat isolation and depression by making him get out, walk and socialize with other people.  Others interviewed believed their animals had saved them from attempting suicide, protected them from danger, and kept them healthy and happy.

I think it makes logical sense that pet ownership would reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Pets fulfill emotional needs like the need for love, security, companionship, and comfort.  Taking care of a pet also fulfills the need to nurture and take care of a other living thing and can give people a sense of purpose.

I’m sure all you pet owners and animal lovers are thinking, “Tell me something I don’t know.” Whether you were aware of the healing power of animals or you just realized they made you feel good, I now encourage you to include your pet in your list of strengths when it comes to coping and healing from grief.  

For all you animal skeptics, I get you.  I know your thinking, “animal healing is not for me,” and there’s a good chance you’re right.  I’m not suggesting you run out and adopt a pet tomorrow, I’m simply asking you to open your mind to the possibilities because you never know when the opportunity to pet a puppy might present itself.

We leave no stone unturned when it comes to grief and coping so subscribe to receive all our posts straight to your inbox.  Also, don’t miss our podcast on grief coping.  

March 28, 2017

21 responses on "The Healing Power of Animals"

  1. Well, I never thought about such things even though I have 3 adorable dogs at home until past two months when I adopted a JRT from pet store: http://britishgritjackrussellterriers.com/. A pet carer mentioned me Social Benefits. The same as you have mentioned in your post.

    I just couldn’t believe how one came up with these points. You must have observed them carefully.

    Thanks for sharing the post. 🙂

  2. I love this post thank you Eleanor for posting this…My Mum died suddenly during heart surgery seven months ago and the dogs that I walk (I am a dog walker) helped me in soo many ways…without them I don’t think I would be where I am today, they made me feel whole when I was shattered and in pieces, they were the glue to bring me back to myself, they gave me purpose, got me outside, breathing fresh air when I felt so lost and adrift, they are walking hearts and for me probably the best medicine for sadness, they rock and have been a huge part of helping me heal in my grief, they rock are so there for you, without question, they fed my soul and healed me gently with love and companionship…being with them was my therapy…

  3. Now I’m working as a vet tech and I simply love it. I never expected to work with animals before, I kind of fell into it now and enjoying my job more than any other job I’ve had before. I believe animals are such a wonderful creation of nature.
    http://www.petinsuranceu.com

  4. That is an interesting connection that you make between oxcytocin and animal bonding. I know I love spending time with my pets, and I often describe them as my own children. I can see how this would be a great emotional support for people while travelling. https://nextgenpsychology.com/

  5. I agree that there are many social benefits to having a pet. They tend to be social creatures, so they’ll help you feel less lonely. You may even be surprised to find your interpersonal skills developing, even though it’s a pet you’re interacting with. http://riversanimalhospital.ca/services.html

  6. I love the picture of your puppy because that’s exactly what our puppy looked like when I was younger! Thanks for sharing this great info about how pets can heal us. I definitely have seen the emotional benefits you talked about, like not being as stressed and having more trust.
    http://www.avonanimal.com/about-our-clinic/

  7. I love how much pets can help emotionally! Thanks for explaining how animals can actually decrease cortisol. It’s always fascinating to me to learn about the scientific reasons behind emotional responses. I’ve been trying to convince my husband that we need a dog, so this article will also help me in that argument!
    http://www.montgomeryah.com/

  8. Animals really do have a great healing power. They are so cute that they can just cheer you up no matter what. It is really interesting that they can help increase levels of oxytocin in your body. It is cool to be able to hear about all of the different health benefits these animals can have.

  9. It’s really neat to see how there are pets who assist other pets in a veterinarian clinic. I know that the one where my wife takes our dog at has two cats walking around the whole office. To me, I’m guessing it’s something that helps other pets interact better with each other. http://www.sandownveterinaryclinic.com.au/veterinary-services

  10. I thought you were in a picture with a really pretty dog that looks like a golden retriever.
    Well you couldn’t be worse than the kind of “people” I hear about when helping with animal advocacy. The things some “humans” do to animals…well, it’s why I use quotes when I call them people bc that’s not a person IMO. Cutting out a kitten’s eyes and kicking its stomach in is so far from humane you don’t get the title from me.
    (The kitten lived; it’s a blind cat now living mostly happily with its human.)
    They’ve also done studies about how much a purr helps people who are sick and found scientific evidence that it does, but I’ve known the information since 1977. If you can get a cat to curl up in your lap and fall asleep purring you’re really lucky bc cats choose people. Dogs just seem to like everything that moves IMO. Even me and I’m largely afraid of dogs because I saw my sister get attacked by a big white dog. It bit a large chunk out of her. I was the next closest person to her. When I saw her get bitten it broke my paralysis and I was able to run.
    But I’ve been afraid of large dogs since then.

  11. This post hits close to home. My story combines not only the therapeutic love of animals but also being responsible for a loved ones furry one. My mom passed almost 2 years ago and she asked me while she was sick “who’s gonna take care of Chloe?” her cat. I told her of course we would. We had already treated her as family the day we surprised mom with her one Christmas. To see Chloe lay on mom’s bed with her as she grew more sick; these traits of a loving animal to their owner and how they know they are sick. We love her so much and it makes me feel closer to my mom when she lays on my lap. She’s such a lap cat and stroking her just puts me there with my mom, knowing how happy she’d be that we love her as family. My husband being the non-cat lover has grown to love her…and his heart and stress levels will thank him.

  12. Haha. I am NOT an animal person. I have three children who are begging for a dog. My current rule is no dog until every human is independent in pottying. (I have one left in diapers and I may keep him in diapers to just not have to deal with the dog! haha) I do think that a pet could be helpful for some people. I’ll let you know if we ever get one whether or not it helps me in my daily life. I love ya’lls blog.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Oh my gosh Janna I was just like you except my youngest is five! I just couldn’t imagine dealing with another dependent being, especially because I didn’t see the benefits of pet ownership. As I’m learning having a puppy is a lot like having a new born minus the sleep deprivation but I will say she has ultimately been a nice addition. My girls are 5 and 7 and the 7 year old is just old enough to be a huge help, I’m not sure I ever would have done it any younger. Let me know if you ever decide to take the leap!!!

  13. I read Leslie Irvine’s abstract and I loved it, especially the last line!.You gals put out some good stuff!

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Thank you for being so supportive! I loved her article and I think it is so sad to know that many people experiencing homelessness actually have to give up their beloved pets. Talk about secondary loss.

  14. Without my animal companions, I simply would not have lived this long. They are always there for me, always ready to console, comfort, or play, and give something no human being on earth can give: truly unconditional love. And they remind us to live in the moment.
    While I like to encourage people to have an open mind about adopting an animal companion as your post says, I also always add a caution: If you have not had a pet before, or have not had a certain breed of dog or cat, PLEASE do extensive research on the breed or species before adopting. That cute puppy may grow into a dog you cannot properly handle, and the one who will pay for the mistake is the unfortunate animal. Remember that they are not disposable – when you adopt it is a huge commitment. You need to know that, to the best of your knowledge, you can give that animal a good home for the next 15+ years. I also like to urge people to adopt a dog or cat from a rescue organization or shelter rather than buying from a breeder, even if you want a baby. Many of them have puppies and kittens as well as adult animals, and so many perfectly nice animals are killed each year just because no one wants them. And remember to keep your options open: sometimes a visit to a local shelter will turn up the perfect pet, who doesn’t turn out to look anything like what you expected to get. 🙂

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Z,

      Thank you, those are very important thoughts! I don’t think anyone should adopt on a whim or when there are any questions about long term care. It is a huge responsibility and commitment so you’re absolutely right, people need to think long and hard.

      Eleanor

  15. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)February 3, 2015 at 12:54 pmReply

    I’m so glad you finally saw the light, Eleanor! Terrific post! And Kiri, my dear, your story took my breath away. I’m sharing both these posts, with heartfelt thanks to both of you ♥

  16. Ok, that’s plain weird, just as this popped into my inbox, I was thinking about asking you guys if you had done a post on grief and animals, because I just published this one (although it says it was published in December when I started it, that’s how prolific I am). https://retrogirlandthechemokid.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/the-return-of-charlie-cat-or-on-belonging/

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Haha okay so that is REALLY weird!!! Also, I know exactly what you mean about starting posts months before they’re published…ahhhh I know ours aren’t always gems but they are a labor of love. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading your story thank you for sharing!

      Eleanor

Leave a Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *