NOTE: The Cape May County Herald is offering full coverage of the COVID-19 / coronavirus emergency to all, with no payment required. We are committed to ensuring our readers can make critical decisions for themselves and their families during this ongoing situation. To continue supporting this vital reporting, please consider a digital subscription. For more coverage, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Have you ever considered that in addition to the pleasure of petting a fuzzy cat or dog, there are health benefits that you both receive?

Thirty years ago, I added a soft and beautiful golden retriever to my clinical psychology practice in Philadelphia and Seven-Mile Island. I named him “Spinnaker” because his auburn fur announced his arrival and drew attention wherever he went. 

It was unusual to have a therapy dog in the office in 1985, but I trained Spinnaker to be calm and friendly, and clients loved his quiet presence. When they cried, as part of their therapy, Spinnaker knew to stand up, walk over and stand quietly at their knee, looking at them with compassion as they talked about their sadness and trauma.

Spinnaker was with us for 12 years and was followed by Whitby, a Portuguese water dog, for the next 14 years. Whitby also intuited what clients needed, and used his calm presence to comfort who he served.

In the years after Whitby’s death, at age 14, the mother-daughter team of Bliss and Oakley graced the work for our clients. Oakley and I are joyful when clients invite her onto their lap with a treat I provide to get everything moving.

When I first began training animals, as part of a therapy team, we had little documentation that my instinct was supported by research, but it is. Science indicates that petting a dog can be valuable for your health. Here are three benefits that you and I receive from a relationship with an animal we trust:

  1. When you are in physical contact with your dog, your system produces "oxytocin," a hormone that is crucial in social bonding, sexual pleasure and reproduction, childbirth, and adjustment during the period after childbirth. 
  2. Oxytocin helps us feel alive and manage stress. Your nervous system responds favorably to a cat or dog's fur, like the soothing touch from a loved one. This helps relieve anxiety that often accompanies life events.
  3. It is called “the love hormone” because it creates ease in social relationships. For example, we see it when mothers nurse their babies.

Let’s examine recent research from universities and colleges.

Higher education is stressful for students who absorb large quantities of information at the same time that they socialize and manage financially. To help calm students, some universities offer regular visits from cats and/or dogs in an attempt to alleviate some of the strain. This interaction can improve students' moods and can lessen stress for the student in contact with a trusted animal.

Interacting with cats and dogs correlated with a reduction in "cortisol,” a stress hormone, as stated in an article from the American Educational Research Association. In the first study of its kind, nearly 250 college students were divided into a group that spent 10 minutes enjoying an animal's company. A second group observed other people petting animals while they waited in line for their turn, a third group watched a slideshow of the same animals and a fourth group was "waitlisted."

Whether you are cuddling a person or animal, remember that you give your nervous system an advantage in experiencing safety and calmness.

To Consider:  If you love an animal, do you benefit from the relationship you both have?  If not, how could you increase your time together? Might others benefit from this animal, and if so, how?

To Explore: We now have solid research on the benefits of close ties with fuzzy tame creatures. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190715114302.htm

ED. NOTE: Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com.