Pet Therapy and the Cuddle Chemical

Created by susan on 2019-05-25 15:10:40


Have you ever wondered why we love our furry friends? Aside from being another family member, research shows there is actually a cuddle chemical! The theory is that pets boost our oxytocin levels known as the “bonding hormone” or “cuddle chemical” which enhances social skills, decreases blood pressure and heart rate, boosts immune function and raises tolerance for pain. Similarly, they improve our psychological health via lowering stress, anger, and depression. In fact, pets shower us with so much love so it is no surprise they have a big impact on our love organ; the heart. Whether you are going for a walk or cuddling your beloved pet studies reveal that this is linked to better cardiovascular health.

May I introduce you to the newest member of our family, Biggles our Siamese kitten who is posted on this blog! He is simply adorable! He was named after Bigglesworth, a fictional character in British children’s books that was a spitfire pilot that my husband loved reading as a child. Biggles name fits him not because he is “too big” but he arches his back and jumps up in the air and walks sideways when he is startled. It is his defense mechanism to protect himself from his prey and make himself look larger. It is hilarious! Yes, our pets give us belly laughs too which also produces an endorphin effect known as the “feel good hormones”!

I have used pet therapy to build a rapport with my patients and especially the ones who have poor body image, eating disturbances, anxiety, and depression. It works miracles with their mood, social skills, and body image. They self-disclose more freely as they interact with their dogs and cats because it builds trust in the therapeutic alliance. My husband and I traveled to Vienna and attended a show at the Spanish Riding School. The horses were trained for dressage, which is an art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance. 

It was so spectacular to watch their performance because it seemed as if they were dancing and it inspired me to incorporate equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP), an adjunct psychotherapy that compliments traditional psychotherapy which is used in therapeutic settings to treat ADD/ADHD, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Equine therapy is clinically effective for patients who have body image issues or a formal eating disorders via individual, group or family. I have observed therapeutic progress with the following symptoms: impulse control, anxiety attacks, body esteem, relationship functioning, assertiveness and self-esteem. 

How does EAP work? As the patient builds a bond with the horse they are able to identify emotional vulnerabilities and take risks which translates to building trust in relationships with others. They become more psychologically introspective and process therapeutic issues (i.e., body esteem and self-esteem) in traditional therapy. We also offer music and art therapy that expedite the treatment process and allows the patient to become more cognizant of underlying issues such as fear of rejection or fear of intimacy. I have had the pleasure of working with many patients who are equestrians and many of them report significant improvement with body image issues while they are training or competing.

Whether you are into English (i.e., I do love the equestrian style with English riding jackets and boots, and jodhpurs) or Western (i.e., Texas style cowboy boots and hats) style riding or have felines or canines, pet therapy improves your emotional and physical well-being. It combats feelings of loneliness, decreases cortisol (i.e., stress hormones), improve social skills because they are an instant ice breaker, and they keep us active. In fact, dogs can actually be your own personal trainers since dog walkers are more likely to commit to a fitness plan versus walking alone. It is no wonder that we adore our furry friends! Take a moment and share a photo of your beloved pet!