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The Connection Between Oxytocin and Therapy Animals

April 10, 2018

 

What is Oxytocin?

 

Oxytocin is a very powerful hormone in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter. It is mainly a hormone used for bonding: “it regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm” (PT). This hormone is crucial for all species as it helps form relationships and trust in one another; one of its main functions is to help bond babies and their mothers during breast feeding which is a major aspect of the maternal-infant relationship. Oxytocin helps us feel love and trust in each other which form the basic building blocks for relationships. However, oxytocin is not just important for human-human bonds, it is also vital in human-animal bonds. 

 

How Do Therapy Animals Actually Help us? 

 

We as humans have pets to make us happier, because who doesn’t get a smile on their face when they see their adorable four-legged friend at the end of a long day? Scientific research is now showing that “our pets can also make us healthy, or healthier” (Rovner). 

 

Therapy animals are used in all sorts of ways to help support humans. Many hospitals, nursing homes, and even jails will have a therapy dog or cat that can go room to room and be pet or played with. Although these therapy animals have been bringing smiles to peoples’ faces for as long as we can remember, they serve an even more important purpose: making us healthier. 

 

In one of the earliest studies done with therapy animals, it showed that “heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn't” (Rovner). This finding proved that owning a pet can help you relieve stress and improve heart health. In relation to this study, another study found that “petting one's own dog could reduce blood pressure” (Rovner). In a general sense, both of these studies show that bonding with your pet can improve your health.

 

How Does Oxytocin Fit Into This?

 

There have been more studies done recently on the connection between animals and oxytocin in humans; these studies have shown that “interacting with animals can increase people's level of the hormone oxytocin” (Rovner). Petting our animals or interacting with them in general can help increase levels of oxytocin in our bodies which in turn makes us happier. Interacting with our animals is a method of bonding which helps to build a relationship of trust, just as a mother and child would bond through breastfeeding or skin-to-skin contact. 

 

Petting is not the only way that a therapy dog can help; one psychologist uses a dog in his therapy sessions because he feels it helps children be more open to the counseling: “’One of the things that's always been known is that the animals help a clinician go under the radar of a child's consciousness, because the child is much more at ease and seems to be much more willing to reveal’” (Rovner).

 

Many studies recently have proven the fact that animals can help raise oxytocin levels in humans, but a lot of these studies involve dogs and cats, which are the most popular therapy animals. However, horses are also known to help raise oxytocin levels in humans and bond with them in ways that other animals cannot. 

 

Horses, Humans, and Oxytocin

 

Horses have been used as therapy animals for quite a while, but not many people see them as a typical therapy animal. Equine therapy is much different than other types of animal therapy because horses can provide so many different benefits to humans that other animals cannot. There are multiple mental aspects and physical aspects that horses can help humans with; Breeanna Bornhorst, executive director of the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program in Clifton, Va. mentions "’some of our riders might benefit from the connection and the relationship-building with the horse and with their environment. Other riders maybe will benefit physically, from the movements, and build that core strength, and body awareness and muscle memory.’" (Rovner). 

 

Overall, horses can help to raise the levels of oxytocin in a person’s body in many different ways; riding, grooming, petting, and directing a horse are all ways that oxytocin levels can rise because of the bonding going on between the horse and the person. 

 

 

References:

  • “Oxytocin.” Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/oxytocin.

  • Rovner, Julie. “Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Heal Each Other.” NPR, 5 Mar. 2012, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/03/09/146583986/pet-therapy-how-animals-and-humans-heal-each-other.

 

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