Pets: our unwavering companions, our constant supporters, our best buddies. A wagging tail or an affectionate snuggle is something we’re not taking for granted these days. And it’s reminding us how powerful the bond between person and pet really is.
Maggie O’Haire, PhD, is a professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond. Her research focuses on figuring out why animals are just so good for us, as well as how we can use these special bonds to improve our overall health and well-being. Along with Leanne Nieforth, MS, who does research with her at Purdue, O’Haire has some good news about pets during coronavirus: If you have one, it’s probably helping. And if you don’t, there are plenty of ways to reap the benefits of interacting with animals from afar.
A Q&A with Maggie O’Haire, PhD, and Leanne Nieforth, MS
Why do humans bond so powerfully with their pets?
Nieforth: There are many theories as to why humans can bond so powerfully with pets. The first is the biophilia hypothesis, which essentially means that humans are innately drawn to living things. This fascination has an evolutionary basis in that a human’s chance of survival increases through attention toward and knowledge of their environment.
A second explanation is attachment theory, which describes the deep emotional bond that can occur between living beings. The bonds that humans create are adaptive for survival. In bonding with pets, humans create a sense of companionship as well as a source of social support. The nonjudgmental support humans perceive from their pets may not only help emotions but also provide the opportunity to increase interaction and engagement with other humans as well.
What are some of the key health benefits of having pets?
O’Haire: For many people, pets can reduce anxiety and increase positive emotions and joy. Humans have a neurological response when they see an animal. In fact, animals have been shown to provide an external focus of attention that can lower our cardiovascular response to stress. Studies have shown that for some individuals, pets can decrease blood pressure and heart rate and positively influence mental health.
In our research at the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, we have found that even the simple presence of an animal can increase positive emotions, smiling, and laughing. Our studies have also shown changes in physiological biomarkers of stress when a person is with an animal. We see this among military veterans with PTSD in terms of their production of cortisol, a stress hormone, and we see it among children with autism in changes in their sweat reactivity. In addition, our studies have found overall higher quality of life among military veterans and individuals with physical disabilities who have service dogs in comparison to those without service dogs.
Although many benefits have been found for people who have pets, it is hard to know if pets cause health benefits or if healthier people are just more likely to have pets to begin with. Future scientific research is important and needed to determine the true effect of pets on human physical and psychological health.
Are the benefits of social interaction with animals comparable to those of social interaction with other humans?
O’Haire: Companion animals have been shown to increase an individual’s feelings of interaction and connection. With this connection, they can become an important and supportive relationship for people. In some cases, the human-animal bond can help alleviate depression, anxiety, and loneliness. One study in particular compared pets to family members in terms of how they reduced feelings of rejection. Interestingly, people rated pets as having a similar effect as their human peers and their family members.
Although the relationships we have with companion animals are certainly different from the relationships we have with other humans, new science shows that these relationships are surprisingly similar in how important we perceive them to be and how supported by them we feel.
What can having a pet do for our stress levels?
Nieforth: The nonjudgmental nature of pets and the positivity they bring to our lives can decrease stress levels. A classic example is when your dog greets you at the door with its tail wagging when you come home. Your dog does not care how your day went or what you did; it’s just happy to be with you again, and that happiness can be contagious. In our studies, we see this with veterans and their service dogs. The veterans often talk about how the interactions they have with their dogs increase their positivity, promote hope, and change their attitudes for the better.
Although studies have shown that pets can be beneficial to human mental health, it is important to remember that they are complementary interventions and not a standalone treatment. Often the addition of an animal to a treatment intervention is beneficial, but on its own, the animal interaction may not be as effective as it is when joined with another evidence-based treatment. It is also important to remember that not everyone will enjoy or benefit from companion animals: They are not a universal panacea but instead appear to be a positive source of joy and support for those who are amenable.
What health conditions can be helped with animal-assisted therapies?
O’Haire: In the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, we conduct research on the effects of interacting and bonding with animals. We have several ongoing studies related specifically to the effects of service dogs on psychosocial outcomes.
Children with autism: Children with autism spectrum disorder often struggle with social interaction and can suffer from social isolation, bullying, and stress in school classrooms. Our research has found that a classroom-based animal-assisted intervention resulted in a 54 percent increase in social behaviors for children with autism and a 43 percent reduction in a physiological indicator of anxious activation.
Veterans with PTSD: Military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder often suffer from depression, social isolation, and persistent hypervigilance and stress. Our research showed that having a trained psychiatric service dog was related to 30 percent lower depression, a 21 percent greater ability to participate in social activities, and physiological changes in the body through the stress hormone cortisol.
Physical disabilities: Individuals with physical disabilities can face significant challenges with social isolation, emotional burden, and barriers at work and school. Our research showed that having a trained service dog was related to 10 percent better emotional functioning and 16 percent greater functioning at work or school. Caregivers of individuals with service dogs also reported 17 percent less worry.
When does it make sense to consider fostering or adopting an animal for social connection? Are there good ways to interact with animals safely during the pandemic even if you don’t have your own?
Nieforth: Though many people are finding themselves with extra time and not much of a reason to leave their homes during this odd time, it is important to remember that adopting an animal is a long-term commitment, and eventually society will move back to normal, prompting people to return to their busy lives. In the meantime, fostering could be a shorter-term commitment and a nice way to connect with animals and be of service to the community in this time of social isolation.
A fun way to interact with animals safely during this time is through watching videos and looking at pictures of different animals on the internet. Though this interaction would not bring social support, it could bring a sense of joy and some stress relief. Many museums, zoos, and aquariums across the world have live webcams or virtual tours that may be worth checking out. (The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a calendar of animal livestreams you can access here.)
Maggie O’Haire, PhD, is an associate professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the head of the Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research. O’Haire earned her bachelor’s in psychology from Vassar College and her PhD in psychology from the University of Queensland. She is also a Fulbright Scholar.
Leanne Nieforth, MS, is a researcher and PhD candidate at the Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research at Purdue University. She is currently studying the efficacy of service dogs as a complement to PTSD treatment in veterans.