Admit it, caring for your pet can make you happy too. Science is working on why.
- A study shows that caring for your pets can improve your well-being.
- The researchers found the act of caring provided more improvements than mere companionship.
- These results aren't limited to pets. Plenty of studies show caring for others can improve your well-being.
Admit it, you treat your dog like it's a person and act accordingly. It's kind of okay though, tons of people do.
Researchers with the Interdisciplinary Center of the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology asked 104 dog owners to keep a journal for 21 days. The test subjects rated how much they agreed with statements about their interactions with their pet such as "When I interacted with my dog, I tried to show it that I really care for it" or "When I interacted with my dog, I tried to let it feel free to be its true self." They also responded to questions of how they were feeling, and if they supposed their dogs cared about them.
As predicted, owners who gave their dogs more support reported higher levels of well-being, felt closer to their pets, and noted less psychological distress. The effect was more substantial than the benefits gained from receiving support from pets, suggesting that giving support satisfies a need by itself.
The dogs involved in the study could not be reached for comment but are assumed to have enjoyed the attention.
The authors interpreted these findings in the light of Self-Determination Theory, or SDT. A theory of human motivation that focuses on innate drives and needs, it centers around the idea that humans function well when our internal motivations are satisfied and less so when they are not. The key motivations are:
- Autonomy, defined as a need to be a causal agent.
- Competence, defined as the need to experience mastery.
- Relatedness, defined as the need to interact and connect with others as well as the need to experience caring.
One possible explanation of the pet effect observed here is that owners are anthropomorphizing their dogs and allowing their owners to perceive tending to a dog's needs as similar to tending to another person's needs. In particular, this is satisfying the need for Relatedness. Whether dogs actually have the same need to connect with others or to be supported so it can "feel free to be its true self" as humans do remains unknown.
In any case, it does appear that you can satisfy your need to care for something by trying to make your pet happy. Exactly how far this effect can be pushed and if it still works if people aren't anthropomorphizing their pets are areas for future study.
But I don’t own pets, so how does this apply to me?
The ideas behind SDT can be applied in many situations, not only ones involving pets. A variety of other studies have shown that providing care for others can improve your well-being, but have focused on what happens when humans tend to other humans.
Science has confirmed what many pet owners always knew, taking care of your fur-covered friend is often more of a joy than a chore. This study points to new ways to improve your well-being by interacting with both humans and animals to make everybody feel a little better.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to play with a cat.
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons issued a statement to remind its members of their fundamental obligation to science-based medicine and animal welfare.
In 1784, American inventor Benjamin Franklin and French chemist Antoine Lavoisier were tasked by the Académie des Sciences to study the efficacy of mesmerism, the notion that invisible forces exerted by animals provide therapeutic relief in humans. The claim, made by German physician Franz Mesmer, was quickly put to rest with this investigation. No, animal spirits do not influence human biology.
During their studies Franklin and Lavoisier inadvertently discovered a peculiar aspect of human psychology and physiology: the placebo effect. As biographer Richard Holmes writes in The Age of Wonder regarding the increased health of patients who were not actually receiving active ingredients, “It was simply because the patients believed they would be cured.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Rabi Simantov and Solomon Snyder discovered endorphins, endogenous opioid neuropeptides produced by our pituitary gland and hypothalamus that bind to morphine receptors, which is the cause of the placebo response. We’ve reaped the advantages of this natural pain and anxiety relief for eons. The placebo response is why many alternative therapies “work.”
One such alternative therapy is homeopathy, which has recently been put to task by American governing agencies. In 2015, the FTC cracked down on speculative claims advertised on homeopathic packaging, while last month the FDA announced it would be regulating high-risk homeopathic products.
The UK-based Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) also now recommends veterinarians use caution when employing homeopathic products. Considering there is no evidence of a placebo response in any other animal, and that so far the only means for homeopathy to work in humans is by this response, the council overwhelmingly felt using such products is not humane. The statement read:
Homeopathy exists without a recognised body of evidence for its use. Furthermore, it is not based on sound scientific principles. In order to protect animal welfare, we regard such treatments as being complementary rather than alternative to treatments for which there is a recognised evidence base or which are based in sound scientific principles. It is vital to protect the welfare of animals committed to the care of the veterinary profession and the public’s confidence in the profession that any treatments not underpinned by a recognised evidence base or sound scientific principles do not delay or replace those that do.
The statement continues by reminding vets that the welfare of animals under their care should be foremost on their minds. Since there is no credible proof homeopathic remedies work, they should not be employing these substances in their treatments.
While the council has not banned veterinary homeopathy, nor even suggests it, holistic vets responded by claiming an infringement on their rights. Chris Day, president of the The British Association of Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeons, called it a “de facto ban.”
This is an attack on freedom of choice for clients and on the clinical freedom of vets. We are deeply disappointed that the RCVS would seek to undermine its own members whose independence and livelihoods are at stake.
It’s challenging trying to make sense of homeopathy’s efficacy as promoted to treat animals. Consider a concoction designed for diarrhea and gas in dogs and cats. Among the active ingredients are Nux Vomica, from the highly poisonous strychnine tree, which, diluted to the homeopathic rating of 6c means there’s one part strychnine per ten trillion parts sugar water; Thuja Occidentalis, derived from the cedar tree, which, while rich in vitamin C, is predominantly used in insecticides, cleansers, disinfectants, and soaps, and contains a neurotoxic compound, thujone; and Argentum Nitricum, silver nitrate, a popular homeopathic remedy for anxiety with no proven health benefits and lethal in high doses.
That’s only one-third of the ingredient list for that particular concoction; the others do not hold up to scrutiny either. By aligning itself with the “natural” and “holistic” edge of healthcare, homeopathic products take advantage of our general ignorance of compounds and dilution rates. Most homeopathic remedies are quite safe because there’s little to no active ingredients inside of the bottle. The leap to calling it “therapeutic,” however, is inexcusable, a fact more governing agencies are acknowledging.
"Can I haz evidence plz?" (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Senior Vice President of the RCVS Chris Tufnell is particularly concerned with the use of homeopathic nosodes which are sugar-coated homeopathic vaccination pills containing trace amounts of diseased tissue or discharge from a sick animal. “I have seen dogs die from completely preventable conditions such as parvovirus, which is extremely unpleasant and preventable,” he said to The Sunday Telegraph. “It’s entirely unnecessary.” Homeopathic painkillers are another concern in the scientific community, as animals are often left in tremendous pain if their owners opt for alternatives to painkillers for their pets.
Our interaction with other species is always fraught with danger. For example, credible researchers always take studies on mice with a grain of salt. While their DNA is remarkably similar to ours, until tests are performed on humans there is no way to ensure efficacy on our biology. The reverse is also true: believing our remedies are applicable to other species is unsound.
Not that there aren’t cross-species solutions. Recently, one of my cats was having bowel problems. My wife and I started mixing fiber into his diet; problem solved. Plant fibers do their job across many species; a lack of fiber in the human diet is creating serious problems. There are plenty of examples of such substances working in different animals.
Homeopathy is not one of them. We’ve evolved an incredible healing system with natural opioids in which psychology and physiology work by unconscious processes. The RCVS recommendation isn’t a civil rights issues; it’s an animal welfare issue. Doctors treating animals should uphold the same oath demanded of human doctors. That starts with evidence.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Animal-assisted therapy is increasingly being used nowadays. But does this practice make an impact?
We see such studies in magazines, in the newspaper, and on websites all the time, that pets can help ease things like depression or anxiety. They also can aid in your quest for love. Guys who are dog lovers have long known that a trip to the dog park can get you a date, and one study backs this up. Another finds that positive interactions with your dog can help you make more friends and improve on the friendships you have.
Pets are even thought to help the sick and the elderly—particularly those with Alzheimer’s, and patients whose prognosis is grim. The way we love our pets, like one of the family, makes us feel deep in our gut that such findings must be true. Yet, a new study finds that there is actually little evidence to support these claims.
Animal-based therapy isn’t new. Sigmund Freud often had a dog present in sessions with his patients as a calming presence. Social workers today use animals as an ice breaker, particularly when working with adolescence or children. These latest findings are particularly important nowadays however, as more and more hospitals, nursing homes, universities, prisons, and other such facilities, are using animal-assisted therapy as a way to calm residents and improve their condition. According to a review published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, such initiatives may have been enacted prematurely. Though it makes sense that contact with pets would have a positive impact, the truth is, from strictly a scientific standpoint, we don’t really know for sure.
So far, such studies have failed to account for the impact interaction with the animal’s trainer has.
Human-animal interaction has been a subject of research for decades. Even so, the evidence is a wash, according to psychologist Molly Crossman, who conducted the review. Some studies find that interacting with pets has benefits, others do not. Another problem is the quality of such studies. For instance, those that look at animal-assisted therapy have only examined the short-term impact. Also, there isn’t usually a control group to compare results to in these studies. So whether the impact is significant is in question and if so, whether or not the benefit is long-term. It is clear that human–animal interaction (HAI) has a small to medium impact in the near-term, but beyond that, we just don’t know.
This kind of research may be tainted for another reason. In many of these settings, a trainer brings the animal in. But what effect is the trainer having on these outcomes? The positive benefits might derive not from interacting with the animal but its handler. Owning a pet has also been determined to have health and psychological benefits. And although we can see those who have a dog or a cat at a young age are less likely to develop allergies, with the psychological advantages, since these were observational studies, the results are indeterminable, at least for now.
Is this review enough to question the validity of animal-assisted therapy? There are several theoretical reasons why interacting with friendly animals on a regular basis may improve our condition. Animals and humans can share positive emotions, for instance. Say someone is terminally ill and suffering from chronic pain. They take part in animal-assisted therapy. Playing or cuddling with a cute dog or cat would improve their mood. Since mood has been proven to dampen or heighten pain, a better mood would hypothetically improve their condition. Yet, there is such a thing as the placebo effect. Another consideration often overlooked, according to Crossman, is the impact the therapy has on the animal itself.
One problem standing in the way of empirical evidence is our cultural outlook on such animals. Most people say they just feel the benefits of cuddling with a loving dog or cat, so the need for unbiased data is a moot point. But we can’t just assume a therapy is helpful simply because our upbringing, outlook, or culture tends to have us feel a certain way. Uniformity and untainted evidence are indeed critical to progress in medical science and psychiatry. So what is needed moving forward is better methodology where such studies are concerned.
If you’re a pet owner and you want to understand your furry friend better, click here: