By Nate Balfanz
Neuroscientific research findings suggest that owning and caring for a pet can have a significant positive impact on the biochemical makeup of our brains.
It doesn’t take a doctor to point out the number of benefits that come with owning a pet. As a proud owner of two four-legged, furry friends, I have experienced firsthand the positive impact that my dogs have had on making my family’s apartment a warm and welcoming place to come home to at the end of the day. Pets have the ability to provide us with companionship on lonely days, they help to get us off the couch and out on the running trail, not to mention how they can offer us invaluable lessons about how to nurture and care for ourselves and one another. In addition to these benefits, fascinating new research in the domain of cognitive neuroscience suggests that owning a pet can have a profound effect on the actual biochemical makeup of our brains.
What the Research Tells Us
Dr. Rebecca Johnson and her team of researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia Center for the Study of Animal Wellness have conducted multiple studies that suggest how physical interactions with our pets - petting, hugging, kissing, cuddling – help to promote the release of chemicals in our brain that can, in turn, elevate our mood and ward off feelings of anxiety or depression. Dr. Johnson states, “Our preliminary results indicate that levels of serotonin, a hormone in humans that fights depression, rises dramatically after interactions with live animals, specifically dogs. This hormone is critical to the psychological wellbeing of an individual.” She goes on to identify how another naturally produced “feel good” hormone in the human brain, oxytocin, also experiences a spike in production as a result of our interactions with pets. “This is very beneficial for us, as oxytocin helps us to feel happy and trusting,” notes Dr. Johnson. Thus, while the researchers go on to acknowledge that there is no substitute for positive, nurturing, human-to-human relationships, owning a pet might be the next best thing for both your physical and mental health.
Things to Consider Before Making the Decision to Own a Pet
Is it the right time for me?
A positive pet-owner relationship can best be promoted in the context of a stable and settled home environment. If you are in the midst of any major life transitions — e.g. moving across the country, starting a new job, expecting a baby — then perhaps it would be in the best interest of both you and your future pet to delay the process until the timing is better suited for owning a pet.
Is it the right cost for me?
Whether you’re pursuing an adoption or purchasing from a breeder, owning a pet can get expensive. Between food, shelter, regular and unanticipated trips to the veterinarian, toys, treats and grooming expenses, the costs of owning a pet will add up quickly. Take the time to do the research to determine the average annual costs of owning a pet of your choosing, and see how well it fits into your current budget.
Does it fit with my lifestyle?
Determining if a pet will fit your lifestyle requires careful consideration of a number of factors. Does your work and travel schedule allow for you to own and care for your pet? Is your apartment complex or your neighborhood pet-friendly? Does your life’s general structure and routine have room to incorporate caring for a pet? As we have highlighted, while there are innumerable benefits to owning a pet, the costs that come with it are a reality that one will have to consider before making the decision to welcome a pet into the home.
// Dr. Nate Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at JJ-Premier Medical Care, a comprehensive mental and medical health service clinic for expat children, adolescents, adults and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Balfanz at: firstname.lastname@example.org