What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (2023)

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Published 4:54 AM EDT, Thu October 6, 2022

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (2)

Is sleeping with your pets good for them? —

"In general, it is a very good thing for animals to sleep with their people," said Dr. Dana Varble, the chief veterinary officer for the North American Veterinary Community.

"Do you really think there's enough room for you?" -- Delilah, a 10-year-old Siberian husky.

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (3)
(Video) What Happens To Your Brain When You Pet a Dog? | The Dodo

"Who says everyone can't fit in the bed? As long as I get the biggest part so I can spread out, I'm cool." -- Beast (bottom right), a 106-pound European Doberman, with (clockwise from bottom left) his sisters Buttercup and Bear; brother Joey, laying on their human; and sister Bailey.

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (4)

"Hi I'm Tessie, a 4-year-old Australian cattle dog. I love sleeping with my girls so much that when they go to the store i snuggle with their bed toys until they get back."

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (6)

"Come on, Dad, that's enough sports for tonight. It's time for bed." -- Ellie, a 6-year-old German shorthaired pointer, who likes to sleep under the covers next to her humans.

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (7)

Dogs and cats who share their human's bed tend to have a "higher trust level and a tighter bond with the humans that are in their lives. It's a big display of trust on their part," Varble said.

Banshee, a 6-year-old Husky mix, is a rescue who survived heartworms.

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (8)

"When a dog turns their back to you, it's an incredible sign of trust because that is a very vulnerable position for them -- they can't keep watch for danger," Varble said.

(Video) What petting a dog can do for your brain? | IHW.tv

Mason, a 3-year-old lab mix, loves to sleep next to his dad every night but hates covers.

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (9)

"Dogs and cats who are more closely bonded with their humans get additional health benefits," Varble said, including increases in oxytocin and dopamine, the feel-good hormones.

"What? I don't snore!" -- Luna, a 2-year-old Siberian Forest cat.

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"Make sure all the pets in your house are up to date on flea, tick and internal parasite prevention, especially if you're going to have them in your bed," Varble advised.

Molly (left), a 15-year-old cockapoo mix, likes to sleep in her human's armpit, while Evie (right) prefers the end of the bed and hates to be woken up early.

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (11)

"Animals have different personalities like we do," Varble said. "Some people sleep with the lights on and some people like to sleep in the complete dark. One pet might have more of a protective, another more of an assertive personality."

Evie, a 4-year-old Jack Russell terrier mix, has been known to crawl onto her human if she needs more affection.

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (12)

A dog who sleeps at the end of the bed with their face toward the door might have a more protective personality, Varble said.

"Thank goodness that bed hog Beast is gone so I can catch up on my zzz's." -- Buttercup, a 4-year-old beagle-bulldog mix.

What petting a dog can do for your brain | CNN (13)
(Video) How Petting a Dog Can Benefit Brain Health

"I may look like an angel, but in the night I have been known to walk or sit on my humans and try to smell their breath. I also enjoy draping my 2-foot-long body across their necks at about 3 a.m." -- Lynx, a 2-year-old Siberian Forest cat.

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On one side of the room sits the cutest life-size stuffed animal you’ve ever seen. On the other side rests a real dog — same size, shape and even the same name as the stuffed version.

You get to sit next to both of these fluffy friends and pet their fur. Guess which one will make your brain light up?

Courtesy Pascale Sauvage Humans bred dogs to have puppy-dog eyes

If you guessed the real dog, you’re right. Stuffed animals, as cute and cuddly as they may be, just don’t supercharge our frontal cortex, the part of the brain overseeing how we think and feel, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

“We chose to investigate the frontal cortex because this brain area is involved in several executive functions, such as attention, working memory, and problem-solving. But it is also involved in social and emotional processes,” said study lead author Rahel Marti, a doctoral student in the division of clinical psychology and animal-assisted interventions at the University of Basel in Switzerland, in an email.

Why is this finding important? It provides additional evidence that live human-animal therapy interactions may boost cognitive and emotional activity in the brain, Marti said.

“If patients with deficits in motivation, attention, and socioemotional functioning show higher emotional involvement in activities connected to a dog, then such activities could increase the chance of learning and of achieving therapeutic aims,” she said.

This latest study adds to existing research on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy in medically supervised neural rehabilitation for nervous system conditions, such as strokes, seizure disorders, brain trauma and infections.

“This is an interesting, rigorously conducted study that provides new insight into associations between human-animal interaction and regional prefrontal brain activity in healthy adults,” said Dr. Tiffany Braley, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who has published research on the connection between pet ownership and cognitive health.

Adobe Stock Pets can boost your brain power, study says

“Although further work in larger samples of people with specific neurological conditions is needed, the current study could inform future research of animal-assisted interventions for neurorehabilitation by providing new data regarding the type, intensity, and frequency of animal interactions necessary to achieve desired physiological or clinical benefits,” said Braley, who was not involved in the new research.

Researchers used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) in the study, which is a portable brain scanner that provides flexibility since it’s functional in natural settings and not limited to a closed room in a lab. The technique measures brain activity via oxygen saturation of the blood in the brain.

Closer the better

The study team fitted each of 19 participants with the scanner and asked them to observe and interact with one of three live dogs: a Jack Russell terrier, a goldendoodle and a golden retriever. First, study participants watched the dog from across the room. Then the dog sat next to them. Finally, each person was allowed to pet the dog. This process occurred twice more at later dates.

Petting a live dog supercharged activity in the part of the brain that controls thinking and emotional reactions, the study found.

In other sessions, each person repeated the same sequence with a plush stuffed lion that contained a hot water bottle to simulate the body temperature of a live dog. In each of the scenarios, brain stimulation rose as the dog or stuffed animal moved closer.

“We found that brain activity increased when the contact with the dog or a plush animal became closer. This confirms previous studies linking closer contact with animals or control stimuli with increased brain activation,” Marti said.

However, the study found an even stronger boost in brain activity when the person petted the fur of a real dog versus the stuffed animal.

“We think emotional involvement might be a central underlying mechanism of brain activation in human-animal interactions,” Marti said, adding that the stuffed animal likely triggered less affection.

(Video) What Having A Dog Does To Your Brain And Body

The results mirror findings by other researchers, who found more brain activity when participants interacted with live rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, dogs and horses, she said.

“Positive nonverbal cues and reciprocal interactions provided by a living animal could in part explain this difference,” Braley said.

(Video) 7 Ways Having a Pet Can Improve Your Mental health

FAQs

How is petting a dog good for you? ›

Research has shown that simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol , while the social interaction between people and their dogs actually increases levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin (the same hormone that bonds mothers to babies).

Do you get serotonin from petting dogs? ›

Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax. Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets. Heart attack patients with dogs survive longer than those without.

What pet is best for mental health? ›

Dogs often prove to be great pets and they come with mental health benefits including stress and anxiety reduction, a boost in self-esteem, and improved social connection. Cats are also popular pets; these loving, independent animals have proven to help with loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

Should you pet your dog on the head? ›

Patting a dog on the head can, in fact, be perceived as threatening behaviour by the dog. Sarah Bartlett, a qualified international dog training instructor, told The Mirror: "The wrong way to approach a dog is to walk up to them head on and just lean straight over them and go down and [stroke them].”

What do dogs feel when you pet? ›

Many dogs experience petting as a form of affection from humans, which makes these interactions not only pleasant, but even supportive of your dog's mental health. In fact, research shows that dog brains release the love hormone Oxytocin when they're petted and given attention from a human.

What are 5 good reasons to get a dog? ›

Top 5 Reasons You Should Own a Dog
  • A dog will clean up your kitchen floor.
  • A dog is the perfect exercise partner.
  • A dog is a great primer for parenthood.
  • A dog can make you feel safer in your own home.
  • A dog will be incredibly loyal to you and your family.

Do dogs get addicted to petting? ›

The good news is, they are probably not addicted to being petted. Typically, high attention-seeking behavior like this comes from just a few different sources. Your most likely culprit? Boredom.

Why are dogs good for mental health? ›

Studies show that dogs reduce stress, anxiety and depression; ease loneliness; encourage exercise and improve your overall health. For example, people with dogs tend to have lower blood pressure and are less likely to develop heart disease.

Do dogs like eye contact with humans? ›

Just as humans stare into the eyes of someone they adore, dogs will stare at their owners to express affection. In fact, mutual staring between humans and dogs releases oxytocin, known as the love hormone.

Can dogs cure loneliness? ›

Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health. Caring for an animal can help children grow up more secure and active. Pets also provide valuable companionship for older adults.

Should you get a dog if you are depressed? ›

In fact: Did you know that dogs can play an integral part in your emotional well-being? Dogs can contribute to your happiness. Studies show that dogs reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and improve your all-around health.

How does Petting animals reduce stress? ›

Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.

Do pets improve mental health? ›

Evidence suggests that attachment to pets is good for human health and even helps build a better community. It's no secret that pets can contribute to your happiness. Studies show that dogs reduce stress, anxiety and depression; ease loneliness; encourage exercise and improve your overall health.

When should you not pet a dog? ›

Don't touch a dog who is sleeping or eating, or chewing a toy. Stay away from a dog who is barking or growling, as well as one who is running loose without a guardian, behind a fence, in a vehicle, or tied up.

How do dogs help with anxiety? ›

Stroking, hugging, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe you when you're stressed or anxious. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and most dogs are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost your mood and ease depression.

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