What is your image of pure happiness? For me, it is my dog's face when I'm getting ready to take him for a walk in the morning. Buddy, a three and a half year old white Labrador, jumps and smiles, as if he was a human who had won the lottery. And he does not get tired of showing off this happiness every single day. Although he is a troublemaker that still chews on socks and shoes, he is capable of sensing when somebody is down and comforting him.
Last summer, one of my stepsons' wives was diagnosed with breast cancer. As we live close, he stopped by one Saturday afternoon with his youngest daughter and small dog to chat a little bit. Although he was trying to keep things together and show strength, deep inside, he was worried about his wife, and it didn't take long for him to burst into tears. As soon as Buddy saw him, he immediately came to the rescue covering him with kisses. It was a heart-warming, and a lesson to learn from pets – they follow their hearts, no matter how silly they look.
Besides Buddy, we have also two cats: Tui, 16 years old, who came with me from Brazil 15 years ago, and Mugato, 10 years old, our ginger-hunter-purring-machine. These are my boys, and I cannot imagine life without any of them. Whether accompanying me when I work, purring on my keyboard or in my laps or showing vulnerability and ask to be cuddled, the cats have always been my faithful companions.
There is increasing scientific research showing that living with animals is beneficial, be it cats, dogs or even fish. Everything starts with the variety of microorganisms that we get from them at least those we can touch. Having dogs, cats or other animals that spend time outdoors is good for the friendly bacteria in our gut, which is responsible for about 70% of our immune system. As a matter of fact, kids raised on farms with animals have virtually no allergies.
But that's not all! Our pets have a direct effect on our hormones too. At least two hormones are directly influenced by our interaction with them: cortisol, the stress hormone, and oxytocin. Petting a dog or playing with it can lower our cortisol levels and cats are not too far behind with their ability to calm us down. Some studies show that cat owners are 30% less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke. As an example, when a cat purrs, the vibration can help lower blood pressure or heal infections. Looking at fish swim gently also helps reduce stress, having possibly a beneficial effect on high blood pressure and even on aggressive behaviours sometimes seen with patients suffering from Alzheimer's.
And about oxytocin? Some studies show that gazing into our dog's eyes can raise our oxytocin level. This is the so-called "love hormone", that is released, for instance, when a mother sees her newborn baby, and is responsible for establishing the bonding between them. It has a calming effect and increases our ability to project trust, be open and warm – all qualities that improve our relationships and consequently our quality of life. Oxytocin also helps to protect the intestine lining, keeping it as minimally permeable as it should be. This is as important to keep us healthy as having enough good bacteria in our gut.
While some studies are showing positive results using synthetic oxytocin to help people with social or behavioural difficulties, there might bring side effects that are still not known today. Bonding with a dog – or any other pet that interacts with us – is 100% safe. In addition, walking a dog or taking it to the park is a great way to meet new people and socialize, which in turn is good for our mental wellbeing.
So let’s cheer the animals in our lives today, on National Pet's Day. And if you don't have one, you don't know what you are missing because unconditional love is just the beginning.