Our pets, our veritable therapists


By AGENCY

Hearing a car purr triggers the production of serotonin, the famous "happy hormone", which calms us almost instantly. And the simple act of looking into a dog’s eyes triggers the secretion of oxytocin, another happy hormone, in humans. Photo: AFP

In the collective imagination, dogs and cats have nothing in common. Yet these prized pets can both contribute to our well-being, albeit in different ways.

Cats

Cats are highly compatible with our lifestyles. They’re often self-sufficient, discreet and much more independent than their arch rivals, dogs. But that’s not all: Sharing your daily life with a feline has many advantages.

In fact, contrary to what their air of arrogance might suggest, cats can be very beneficial to their owners. In particular, they have the ability to help us de-stress.

In a study by researchers in Japan, published in 2017 in the journal Anthrozoos, contact with cats was found to greatly improve mood.

Moreover, the scientific community has discovered that regularly petting one of these animals helps to lower blood and arterial pressure, as well as heart rate. This can be explained by the fact that cats emit very low frequencies when they purr. These sound vibrations have a soothing and beneficial effect on our bodies, just like music.

Hearing this noise triggers the production of serotonin, the famous happy hormone, which explains why it calms us almost instantly. French veterinary surgeon Jean-Yves Gauchet often compares the effect of a cat’s purr on humans to that of “a drug with no side effects”.

As if that weren’t enough, some studies claim that cats boost the immunity of children who grow up alongside them. For a long time, it was thought that exposure to cats and other pets from an early age could, on the contrary, provoke an immune response in children leading to allergies or illnesses. However, in recent years, scientists have come to believe that exposure to germs in childhood may help the immune system to develop.

In a study published in 2011 in the Journal Of Immunology Research, Australian scientists report that the presence of a furry animal, such as a cat, during pregnancy and the first month of life could offer protection against the development of allergies. But they point out that this phenomenon was only observable in families where there was no history of allergies.

In the same year, a European research team came to a similar conclusion after conducting a study among over 22,000 children. However, the results of this research are not unanimously supported by the scientific community, since several factors can influence the development of allergies.

Dogs

Just like cats, dogs can act as veritable therapists. After all, these animals are renowned for being loyal companions. They’ll cheer you up when you come home from the office or the shops, which makes you feel good.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Petting a dog has been shown to lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. And, in the event of a stressful event (bereavement, divorce, redundancy, etc), this kind of furry friend can help reduce anxiety levels, the perception of loneliness and the risk of depression.

This is because dogs have a significant impact on several types of hormones, such as cortisol (the well-known stress hormone) and oxytocin.

Researchers in Japan discovered in 2009 that the simple act of looking into a dog’s eyes triggers the secretion of oxytocin in humans. This compound plays an essential role in cognitive development, emotional regulation, pain management, social interaction mechanisms and the strengthening of bonds between parents and children.

Growing up alongside a dog is a highly enriching experience for children, and it can be particularly beneficial for their development. Indeed, the presence of a pooch in the home helps young children to develop psychologically, emotionally, educationally and socially.

Scientists based in Australia wrote in a research paper, published in 2020 in the journal Pediatric Research, that three- to five-year-olds with dogs are 30% less likely to have behavioural problems than their counterparts without these pets. They are also 40% less likely to have difficulty forming relationships with their peers, and are 34% more likely to display pro-social behaviour.

If dogs have such an influence on a child’s development, it’s because they give them the opportunity to test certain behaviours. They’re a non-judgmental, reassuring partner that can help children become more empathetic towards others.

And that’s not all: Canines can even help motivate kids to get reading. It may sound surprising, but specialists encourage children to read to their four-legged companions as a way of building their confidence. This practice, which originated in the United States in 1999 with the “Reading Education Assistance Dogs” programme, is being tested in several countries.

But the great advantage of dogs is that they encourage their owners to be more active. These animals need to exercise to keep them happy, which encourages their owners to take them out regularly or play with them. What better way to get regular exercise without even realising it?

Outings with a dog are also an opportunity to socialise with other dog owners, and other people in general.

As guardians of their owners’ physical and mental health, dogs have their place in our homes, just like cats.

Choosing between the two is, above all, a question of personal taste, but also of lifestyle. Having a dog is often much more demanding than having a cat. But both animals need attention to thrive.

As such, welcoming one into your home should be a carefully considered decision. – AFP Relaxnews

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