“Paw-sitive” rewiring of the brain

January 24, 2019: A research article that I submitted to a journal gets rejected for the second time. My Masters advisor hasn’t replied to my urgent emails in quite a while and exams are already starting to roll. Things have been taking their toll on me, and despite pretending that it’s just one of those days, I feel hopeless and defeated. When I get back home, Dusk is waiting for me at the door, wagging his tail and his shiny eyes are happy to see me after a long day. But this time his cheerful and loving ways fail to draw a smile on my face. As I make my way heavily past him to go and curl up in my bed, he jumps around but then realizes something is wrong. He follows me silently and waits until I settle before gently climbing up next to me. He tucks his warm body under my feet, looks at me with loving eyes and tries to comfort me. He succeeds. My mood instantly lifts and my day is fixed.

How can such an innocent simple creature lift the burden of the day, as if understanding the complexity of human emotions? How miraculous it is to witness how a seemingly brief and trivial interaction can re-wire the functioning of our mind, positively contributing to our well-being!

This is not just a personal testimony on how a dog, or a pet in general, can improve our health. It is a well-researched and documented phenomena in neuroscience, a discipline that explores the eluding concepts of the mind and the concrete biology of the brain. This intriguing intersection made me study both biology and psychology in college, with the aspiration that one day I will become a neuroscientist who contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our conceptualisation of the world around us. Throughout my three years of study, I have come across fascinating science that underpins some of my daily experiences like those with my dog, Dusk.

Several studies have established the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie positive human-animal interactions, and showed that pets help fight stress and induce feelings of wellness and love. A Japanese research group found that interactions with dogs, especially when initiated by a dog’s gaze, can increase the levels of oxytocin, a hormone that is a major actor in pair bonding. An important feature of the effect of oxytocin is that it elicits a positive feedback loop: interacting with a pet causes the release of oxytocin which promotes the formation of attachment and pair bonds with the owner. This drives the further release of oxytocin and thus the cycle goes on. What is remarkable about this process is that it occurs in both humans and dogs and the effect of the rise of oxytocin in one is mirrored in the other.

Interacting with animals can also induce a “stress buffering effect”. It decreases loneliness, depression and stress by altering physiological parameters like the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamines. Indeed, researchers have found that human-dog interactions reduce the levels of cortisol and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system which results in a de-stressing experience.

It has also been found that positive human-dog interactions increase the levels of dopamine, a major neurotransmitter of the brain reward system, and some types of endorphins which are neurotransmitters that reduce the sensation of pain. These neurochemical changes explain how pets decrease feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression by providing companionship and a pleasant source of contact comfort that promote feelings of safety.

My studies of the neurobiological basis of behaviour and the anatomy and physiology of the human body re-affirm my personal experience: positive interactions with a pet induce relaxation by the release of “happy hormones” in the brain. The frustrated scientist in me now knows exactly who to go to when I’m having a bad day.

I clambered out of bed and by the time I grabbed his collar, Dusk was already waiting for me at the door. As soon as I put his collar on, he started jumping around the house, joyfully teasing me. Whenever I stopped following him, he sat and waited until I got close before taking off again. Finally, he let me catch him and we both cheerfully stepped outside, leaving the day’s worries behind.

The story has been edited by Ghina M. Halabi. Image is a pencil hand-drawing by Cambridge-based visual artist Esther Yasmin.