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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.

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