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Cuddle your pet and improve your health

Original Publication Date: November 9, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

A pet fills your life with fun, unconditional love and companionship. Research is proving that a dog or cat may give you so much more. A little one-on-one petting and cuddling with your furry friend can lower your blood pressure, decrease your stress levels and even ward off depression. That warm fuzzy feeling you get when you stroke your pet is due to changes in your brain chemistry.

Cortisol is a hormone that is made in the adrenal glands. It has many functions but is known as the stress hormone, because high levels are associated with anxiety, depression, and digestive problems. Interestingly, levels of cortisol go down as you stroke you furry friend.

On the other hand, petting your dog or cat releases the feel-good hormones oxytocin and serotonin. Oxytocin is known as the love hormone and is also referred to as the cuddle hormone, the hug hormone, the moral molecule, and the bliss hormone. It has multiple psychological effects that influence social behavior and emotion including its role in love. High levels of this love hormone have been observed in couples during the first six months of their relationship. It is also known to have an anti-anxiety or anxiolytic effect.

Serotonin has a widespread influence on the body because it influences most of the approximately 40 million brain cells either directly or indirectly. This includes brain cells related to mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep, memory and learning and temperature regulation.

Some researchers think serotonin is responsible for maintaining mood balance and that a deficit leads to depression. Dr. Rebecca Johnson, a nursing professor and associate director at the Center for Animal Wellness, Missouri University College of Veterinary Medicine wondered whether stroking a dog could mediate serotonin levels and help depressed patients.

Cuddle your pet and improve your health Cuddle your pet and improve your health
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She had 50 dog owners and 50 non-dog owners sit for 15 to 39 minutes with their own dog or a friendly but strange dog. The dogs' blood pressure dropped as soon as they were petted. The humans' blood pressure dropped about 10 percent 15 to 30 minutes after petting began. Human serotonin levels increased when petting their own dog but not when petting a strange dog.

Apparently, relaxing with a pet can have a positive physiological influence on a person's health. Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, believes that relaxing with a pet has physiological effects similar to other things we know cause relaxation like eating chocolate. He thinks chemical changes that occur in the presence of animals can help us stay well and even recover from illnesses.

Perhaps the next time you feel anxious or stressed, you should eat some chocolate and have a petting session with your dog or cat. Research indicates you and your pet will soon feel more relaxed and healthier.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at