Skip to main content

mental health mondays :: the truth about cats and dogs [and others]

you feel better already, don't you?
sure they're cute and the internet would be pretty empty without all their videos, but did you know that companion animals [which is the politically correct term for "pets" nowadays] also have medical value? i'm not talking about testing, either. the more we study our interaction with our non-human friends, the more we seem to discover about how good they are for us [and we for them]. in particular, there's a growing body of hard science that shows quantitative improvements in the mental health of people who spend time and bond with animals.

first of all, there's oxytocin. oxytocin is kind of an amazing thing, because it has lots of effects on the body, many of which have to do with the way we experience fear and how we interact socially. it's a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that is present in mammals of all sorts. in terms of mental health, it inhibits some of the actions of the amygdala, that magical little almond in your brain that seems to be at the root of a lot of psychological issues. by inhibiting the amygdala, oxtocin reduces feelings of stress and fear, which makes it a powerful anxyiolytic.

a number of studies have shown that spending time bonding with an animal and in particular petting an animal increases the production of oxytocin in both species almost immediately. so if you've ever found that spending a few minutes hugging your four-legged friend at the end of a stressful day makes you feel better, you're absolutely correct. best of all, there seems to be no limit to how often or how well this works: your body won't get burnt out on head scratches and slow the oxytocin production [nor will it release unhealthy amounts]. that makes it an ideal "treatment" for people who suffer from long-term anxiety issues, including things as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder. there's even evidence that oxytocin can help with some of the stress-related behaviours found in autistic people. there's even some evidence that animals can lessen the occurrence of dissociative episodes [which are often triggered by increased anxiety].

but the awesomeness of pets doesn't stop there! pets, especially dogs, promote physical activity. it doesn't matter how depressed you are, fido still needs to go do his business. there are reams of studies showing that exercise is one of the greatest weapons against depression. in those with mild to moderate depression, there's evidence that it could give the same benefits as zoloft.

another animal that's finding a new role as a therapist is the horse. one small but interesting canadian study found that interacting with horses- including caring for them and learning to ride- reduced the incidence of both positive and negative symptoms in schizophrenic patients. the significance of this is pretty massive, because most drugs treat either positive or negative symptoms, but not both. a type of therapy that could address both sides of the schizophrenic coin, particularly one that isn't a drug, would be a boon for psychiatrists.

in general, studies of people who have had to take care of an animal- any animal, even something like a goldfish- experience increased feelings of confidence and self-esteem. a handful of studies have shown that patients suffering from dementia showed varying degrees of cognitive and emotional improvement when given canine-assisted therapy. the studies didn't agree on all points, however there was one general conclusion that they all shared: patients experienced at least some sort of improvement during therapy and the improvements were lost when the therapy stopped.

the science is serious enough that it's actually possible to get a sort of prescription pet in some places. that doesn't mean you get them from the pharmacy, but rather that your doctor gives you a note saying that your animal can go places with you that might otherwise not allow him or her, sort of like people with visual impairments and seeing eye dogs.

of course, i'd be remiss as a cat owner if i didn't mention one mysterious and magical property that fascinates both enthusiasts and scientists. it's that strange, feline thing that we all love and that no one fully understands.

the power of the purr

the purr is one of those things that we instinctively know is good, but we don't know a lot about it. and the more we study it, the more cryptic it becomes. even experts don't know how cats actually produce the sound. they don't even know what general area is used to produce it. they're still arguing mouth versus throat versus chest. however, as they've studied this remarkable genetic quirk, it's become obvious that its purpose goes well beyond just indicating contentment. the sound and vibrations actually promote healing and good health. reduction in inflammation and blood pressure, of course, has a positive effect on mental health [yours and the cat's].

it'll probably come as a surprise to no one that studies observing children who were given animal-assisted therapy showed some pretty remarkable results. children who had experienced trauma like abuse struggle to relate to other people, but still instinctively bond with animals. a 2012 study of 153 children who had been victims of sexual abuse showed that those whose therapy included canine companions had significant improvements in depression, anxiety, dissociation and ptsd. more importantly, their improvements were greater than those of the group whose therapy did not include animals. [it's also worth noting that early exposure to animals actually reduces the chances of allergies of various sorts and conditions like asthma.]

a large part of me looks at this growing mountain of evidence and wants to say "well duh", because it just seems like common sense. but common sense doesn't always prevail in the world of mental health. it's just that, in this case, it really, really does. so go ahead, hug your animal pals. scratch their ears. rub their tummies. if you feel like you have too much to do and can't spare the time, tell yourself it's actually a therapy appointment. one with proven benefits and no undesirable side effects.

Comments

as long as you're here, why not read more?

presidenting is hard :: nato

oh donald, i've been slacking on my promise to help you out with your duties as president. [yes, you may take a moment to giggle at the word "duties". but make it quick.]

it's not because i think you don't need the support; you are every bit as ignorant and inept as i'd feared/ expected and the erstwhile presence of "adults in the room" hasn't made you any better. it's just as well that you've dispatched of them. you weren't listening to what they said 95% of the time and on those few occasions when you did try to listen, you didn't understand what they were saying. increasingly, we're getting to see you for the complete intellectual non-entity you are and to see how someone who knows nothing about history, geography, culture or military tactics addresses the challenges of foreign policy.

the latest development on that front is that i've heard that you're planning on leaving nato. we all know that you've never be…

making faces :: written in the stars, in lipstick [part three]

and lo the earth has completed another journey 'round the sun, passing through all of the signs of the zodiac. well, in lipstick terms, it won't have completed its journey until later this month when it moves from capricorn to aquarius, which is where bite beauty chose to start its turn of the wheel last year. i still feel a little unnerved that they followed the calendar rather than the astrological year [which would have meant starting their astrology collection in march with the sign of aries] but i suspect that that's because their financials also follow the calendar.

after some truly infuriating times early in the calendar and collection year, bite was able to get their inventory issues sorted, which means that all four of the lipsticks reviewed here are still available through bite's website, sephora, or both. hallelujah.

i have some thoughts on the overall collection that i'll share afterwards, but let's just get started on the final four shades of the …

making faces :: written in the stars, in lipstick [part two]

it's the middle of september already? i'm not prepared for that? i mean, i am prepared for it because the heat this summer has been murder on me and i've been begging for a reprieve for months but i'm still bowled over by the speed at which time passes. this year, i've been measuring time through the launches of bite beauty's astrology collection, which arrives like the full moon once a month. [the full moon arrives every four weeks, which is less than any month except february -ed.] earlier this year, i took a look at the first four launches of the collection and already it's time to catch up with four more.

the most important thing for you to know is that after several months of problems, bite and sephora appear to have sorted out their inventory planning. for the last several releases, information has been clear and reliable as to when and where each lipstick will be available [pre-orders taken for a couple of days on bite's own website and a general…