puppy cuddles impact on mental health
by Olivia Kennaway, Paws in Work blogger.
“the cuddle chemical”.
Have you ever been looking longingly into a pup's eyes and felt a surge of warmth wash over you, a soothing warmth that relaxes you yet hurts your heart with happiness? Chances are you’ve been hit with a case of “the love hormone” or “the cuddle hormone”, otherwise known as oxytocin. Produced in your brain (hypothalamus), oxytocin is a hormone that stimulates the feelings of happiness, love and trust and enhances social bonding and social recognition, primarily between a mother and an infant. Mothers with high levels of oxytocin during pregnancy bond better with their babies. This is true for all mammals, not simply humans.
For instance, when pups are separated from their mothers, they emit a series of ultrasonic noises that spur mums to release more oxytocin and to scoop up their pups and behave in a more nurturing way. This, in turn, leads to the release of more oxytocin and, as a result, more attachment behaviour in pups. Author and researcher Meg Daley Olmert explains “When we call our dog, ‘our baby’ it is because we recognise it on a neural level as such. And this recognition triggers the same maternal bonding brain networks that allow a mother to look at her newborn and say, mine!”.
Think of the production of oxytocin as being controlled by a positive feedback mechanism in our brains (the pituitary gland). This mechanism allows the release of the oxytocin hormone when a trigger occurs, such as maternal behaviour like breastfeeding or hugging or cuddling. More recently, oxytocin has been suggested to be an important player in a certain social behaviour, hence it’s popular nickname “the love hormone” (I’ll leave it to you to work out the behaviours associated with it). This release of oxytocin into your body, in turn, reduces the levels of cortisol (otherwise known as the stress hormone) in your bloodstream, i.e it reduces stress levels, anxiety and depression.
So, the release of oxytocin = important for social and relationship bonding and makes us feel less stressed.
11 interesting effects of oxytocin.
crystallizes emotional memories
facilitates childbirth and breastfeeding
boosts sexual arousal
reduces drug cravings
improves social skills
triggers protective instincts
where do the puppies come in?
A scientific study which had ten women stroke, pet, gaze at and talk with their male labradors, then measured the effects this had on both parties’ (pup and human) oxytocin and cortisol levels. It concluded that the dogs' own oxytocin levels increased significantly after 3 minutes of human interaction and that the owners' oxytocin levels peaked between just 1 and 5 minutes, in particular showing that owners whose dogs looked at them longer in the first five minutes had bigger boosts in oxytocin levels than those with less eye contact. It also found that the owner's cortisol levels displayed a significant decrease at 15 minutes of interaction. Therefore, a cuddle a day from a puppy or pooch can have huge physiological benefits for the both of you, leaving you both happier and more relaxed (which is why pets can be a prescription for a happier, healthier life). Who needs a better excuse to have puppies at work than that?!
As we now know, humans use eye contact to communicate with other humans to bond. Dogs, however, do not use eye contact to bond with each other. So how do they know that a held gaze between them and us can make us buckle under the cuteness and give in to their every desire? The very title of this next study is almost enough to explain that: Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds.
Animal behaviourist Takeumi Kikusui of Azabu University in Japan and his team speculated that “some small population of ancestor dogs showed an affiliative eye gaze toward humans. In this process, we agree that there is a [possibility] that dogs cleverly and unknowingly utilize a natural system meant for bonding a parent with his or her child."
genetically programmed to love pooches.
The evolutionary journey between people and pups has been recorded back to around 32,000 years ago, when dogs split from grey wolves and began to evolve into how we recognise domestic dogs today, both emotively and biologically. Our shared environments led to the parallel evolution of humans and dogs. Authors of the study The genomics of selection in dogs and the parallel evolution between dogs and humans, surmise that "As domestication is often associated with large increases in population density and crowded living conditions, these 'unfavorable' environments might be the selective pressure that drove the rewiring of both species,".
For example, aggressive dogs living in crowded conditions with humans would not have been treated as favourably as less aggressive canines. This in turn would have led to more submissive dogs, who ultimately evolved into the pets we know and love today. These original pets, worked out that we are suckers for eye gazing (that’s our oxytocin speaking) and that this unconditional affection from them would result in more benefits from us humans. Therefore, pups today are tapping into an ancient human bonding pathway that has been intertwined for thousands of years, embedded in both our genes. So puppy eyes are very much a thing.
paws and people.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. EVERYBODY has mental health. Whether you have good or poor mental health is a different matter. A recent article from The Guardian discusses the ‘magic effect’ and therapeutic value of our relationship with dogs and how pets can improve our mental health. Marion Janner, a mental health campaigner, says that dogs teach us a whole range of lessons. “Dogs love us unconditionally. They’re the ultimate in equal opportunities – entirely indifferent to race, gender, star sign, CV, clothes size or ability to throw cool moves on the dance floor. The simplicity and depth of this love is a continuous joy, along with the health benefits of daily walks and the social delights of chats with other dog walkers”.
The ability for dogs and pups to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness has been recognised by the prison systems. The mental health impact of therapy dogs in prisons was commissioned by the Centre for Mental Health and incurred extremely positive feedback, like these comments from one prisoner who said “Dogs have a magic effect on you, you can feel their love and that just makes you feel better inside you.” Hello oxytocin. One prison in Northern Ireland has recruited a black labrador puppy called Jingles to offer dog therapy to inmates and their families.
As well as prisons, unsurprisingly, psychiatric hospitals also use animals as therapy for mental health. The State Hospital in Scotland, one of four high-security psychiatric hospitals in the UK, is doing just that. Patients stay on average up to seven years here and staff say that animal therapy helps to develop problem-solving skills, empathy, attention to the needs of others, a sense of responsibility and a way of channelling aggressive thoughts among individuals who have proved hard to reach with conventional psychiatric drugs and talking therapies.
are you in need of some oxytocin?
Here at Paws in Work we also know the huge mental health benefits of puppy therapy (and the importance of socialising puppies). If you and your colleagues are in need of some mental wellbeing TLC in your workplace, have a look at our fully licensed puppy therapy sessions. We promise it’ll lower those cortisol levels!
Similarly, if you or someone you know needs someone to talk to or a helping paw remember to check out our Paws in Work mental health support pages. We also offer an array of mental health training courses if you are looking to continue expanding your overall knowledge of mental health.