Relationships–Pet Love

Exploring the benefits of unconditional love from a pet.

By Shelley Galasso Bonanno, M.A.

As any pet owner can attest, animals provide loyal companionship, security, affection and unconditional love. Animals are always happy to greet us and eagerly await our arrival, independent of our mood or circumstance. This human/animal bond is a unique relationship that appears to be mutually beneficial to the health and emotional well-being of both the individual and the animal. But a growing body of scientific studies reveal our pets not only make us happier, but also emotionally and physically healthier. This helps us explain the increasing use of animals, particularly dogs and cats, in settings ranging from hospitals to schools, correctional facilities and nursing homes.

For example, research on aging reveals older adults typically live happier, longer and healthier lives when they interact with pets on a regular basis. A study conducted by Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who leads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, has shown that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting and contributes to our body’s ability to heal more quickly. Interactions with pets have also been shown to decrease levels of cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone, resulting in increased feelings of calm. Emotional support dogs are registered animals that provide emotional support for individuals suffering from various mental and emotional conditions, such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders and phobias.

Emotional support dogs are meant solely to provide emotional stability and unconditional love to their owner and are protected under federal law.

It is not only our relationship with pets such as cats and dogs that has proven to provide significant therapeutic benefits. Other animals can also act as therapists themselves or facilitate therapy, including horses. Equestrian therapy is a specific form of therapy that makes use of horses to help promote emotional growth. Research has revealed a great deal of success, particularly when used with individuals experiencing anxiety, autism, dementia, developmental delays, depression, brain injuries, trauma/abuse issues and other mental health issues. Those who provide equestrian therapy note that a horse has the ability to respond immediately and give feedback to the rider’s action or behavior. Many might say horses have the ability to mirror the rider’s emotions, thereby forging a strong and mutually satisfying bond between the horse and the rider.

Interactions with animals and our bonds with pets appear to help strengthen resilience through times of crisis and provide comfort, leading to lowered blood pressure and decreased anxiety and sadness. There appears to be little, if any, doubt that the human/ animal bond produces mutually rewarding relationships with our pets that benefits our own emotional well-being and physical health.

bonannoShelley Galasso Bonanno, MA, is a limited licensed psychologist, who has had the pleasure of working with adults, children and families since 1987. A lifelong resident of Macomb County, Ms. Bonanno earned her Master’s degree from Wayne State University with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy. You can follow her on Twitter @shelley bonanno.

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