All emotional support animal owners know that spending time with their support pet makes them feel great in their mind and body. The feel-good rush of playing with your ESA animal is one of the most intense joys that life has to offer. It seems clear that there is something hardwired in us that causes us to react in certain physiological and psychological ways when in the company of a loyal and loving animal.
But what is actually going on in your body and brain when you spend time with your emotional support pet? What mechanisms and reactions are at play? Why does spending time with your ESA animal feel so wonderfully healing?
In this article, we list some of the main effects spending time with an ESA animal has on the human body and brain.
Increased Levels of the Love Hormone
Oxytocin, also know as the love hormone, is produced and released by the pituitary gland when it receives a relevant signal from its neighbor near the base of the brain, the hypothalamus. This hormone promotes feelings of maternal care, bonding and love in mammals. In addition to pleasant feelings of attachment, oxytocin has a bunch of healthy effects on the body and brain. It slows heart rate and breathing, inhibits the production of stress hormones, and lowers blood pressure. This mix of psychological and physiological effects leads to a very pleasant feeling of calm, comfortable and focused attention. Intimate touch, such as petting your ESA, triggers cells under the skin that activate oxytocin production in the brain. Researchers in South Africa have found that when people play with their dogs, their levels of oxytocin double!
Increased Levels of the Feel-good Chemicals
The neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are released in the brain to bring chemical messages from neurons to nerve cells. With these two particular chemicals, the messages tend to be highly pleasurable! Serotonin is associated with feelings of happiness, and dopamine is associated with feelings of reward. A large study at the University of Missouri showed that stroking a dog prompted the release of both serotonin and dopamine in the brain. So spending time with a support pet induces both happiness and a sense of reward. Most antidepressants attempt to increase serotonin levels or to inhibit the brain’s mopping up of the chemical once it is released, so the fact that stroking your pet naturally increases the level of serotonin in the brain means that time with your animal is a great way to alleviate depression. These chemicals feel so good that people take drugs such as cocaine, heroin and ecstasy to increase the levels of these chemicals in their brains. Petting your ESA animal has the same effects — but naturally and safely!
Decreased Levels of the Stress Hormone
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. It has healthy functions within the body, but when it is present in elevated amounts, it can be unhealthy because it messes with your metabolism and immune system. Many studies have shown that spending time with a loved animal reduces the levels of cortisol in the system, and this, in turn, reduces stress levels and brings on a sense of calm relaxation. Research has shown that the company of a pet can be even more relaxing than the company of a spouse!
Increased Cardiovascular and Heart Health
Being the proud owner of an ESA (unless your pet is a flea) will result in you getting more exercise than you otherwise would. Whether you are walking your dog or pig, riding your horse, swimming with your dolphin, or rolling around on the ground with your cat, your heart rate will be elevated. Pet owners are more in shape and more heart healthy than people who don’t own pets. Being with your ESA animal also has been shown to reduce blood pressure, so the effects of a healthier heart and cardiovascular system from all the exercise, coupled with generally lower blood pressure due to the calming effect of your pet’s presence, compound each other and lead to an overall much healthier heart and body!
Increased Resistance to Allergies in Children
A Swedish study from 1999 showed that children who were regularly exposed to ‘furred animals’ in their first year of life tended to have fewer allergies and asthma as they grew up. Other studies have even shown that children have stronger immune systems and are less likely to be vulnerable to eczema when they grow up around dogs.
There are some real and palpable health benefits to having an ESA animal. Get yourself an emotional support animal letter, and your body and mind will thank you in good feelings, health and vitality!