A multitude of studies have shown that being in the company of a dog can improve your mood. But did you know that petting a dog can actually reduce your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol?
Our bodies produce cortisol to help us react efficiently in dangerous situations but, ideally, that should be an infrequent occurrence. Steady production of that hormone is not a good thing: Chronic high levels of cortisol are responsible for increased blood pressure, irritability, difficulty sleeping, weight gain, anxiety, and depression.
According to a study of students during exams week at the University of Washington, before-and-after tests of participants’ saliva showed significant reduction in cortisol for those who spent time petting a dog compared to those who didn’t. Patricia Pendry, a human development researcher at Washington State University, led the investigation and stated in an interview published Sept. 28, 2020 in Discover magazine that, “Dogs tend to be animals who actively seek out interaction with people. They make eye contact… They just seem completely thrilled to interact with the individual and people end up feeling very loved and attended to and special.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) notes that dogs can play an integral part in a person’s emotional well-being. In an article by Greer Grenley published on www.nami.org, she states, “studies show that dogs reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and improve your all-around health.” With approximately 40 million people in the U.S. affected by depression, this is important information. Grenley goes on to point out that “just playing with dogs has been shown to elevate oxytocin and dopamine, creating positive feelings and bonding for both the person and their pet.”
In a study published earlier this year, nursing researcher and director of Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors Cheryl Krause-Parello and her colleagues at Florida Atlantic University studied how walking with shelter dogs affected veterans suffering from PTSD compared to a control group that walked with humans. They measured mental and physical stress indicators, including cortisol levels and heart rate before and after the strolls. The results: “walking with dogs tended to decrease signs of PTSD—particularly variability in heart rate—in veterans with severe symptoms more than walking with another human.”
It’s a given that having a dog in your life will increase the amount of exercise you get but that partnership also enhances your socialization: when you are out walking with your dog, it’s far more likely that you will strike up a conversation with those you meet along the way than if you were walking alone. The more such interactions you have, the more your mental-health benefits. Being responsible for the well-being of a dog also helps your self-esteem, according to psychologists, and that sense of responsibility boosts confidence.
Of course, not everyone has the housing or budget to allow for a dog in the family but there are still lots of opportunities to spend time with them. Most dog shelters are happy to have volunteers who commit to walking a dog or dogs on a regular basis.
It’s difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic not to come across news stories about the significant increase in dog adoptions from animal shelters across the country. People have more time to care for a dog and, evidently, crave the loving companionship of a dog. Turns out this trend is a win-win; the dog gets a home and family, and we humans get a multitude of benefits of sharing our lives with a dog, including better mental health.