Alexali Brubaker did the first study several years ago while she was a graduate student in psychology at San Francisco State University. She and her colleagues looked at the alpha and theta brainwaves of people as they petted stuffed animals and live cats and dogs. They found that petting a cat or dog relieves anxiety by increasing theta waves, much the way anti-anxiety medicine does. They also found that petting a live animal produces greater alpha waves on the left side of the brain, indicating depression and a depressed immune system even out and become less pronounced when you're petting a cat or dog.
But there's more to this. Johannes Odendaal, a research professor at the Life Sciences Research Institute and author of Pets and Our Mental Health, took blood from humans and dogs, both while the person petted the dog and before, and measured the changes in dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin, beta-endorphin, and norepinehrine. These neurochemcials in the brain influence such feelings and emotions as social bonding, a sense of well-being and contentment, feelings of comfort and security, and more.
They also measured Cortisol, which increases during stress and can have a negative effect on the immune system, leaving the body open to illnesses.
They found statistically significant increases in all the positive brain chemicals, in both the human and the dog, while the person was petting the dog, as well as a decrease in Cortisol.
I can't speak for dogs, but if you want to improve your mental health by petting your cat, here are some things to keep in mind.
- Respect your cat's wishes. If he's not in the mood for petting, leave him alone.
- Remember that petting can sometimes be painful for cats. It can cause static electricity, and the receptors where the fur meets the skin can become overstimulated, causing irritation and pain.
- Most cats prefer short petting sessions. When your cat has had enough, let him go away. If you force him to stay with you, you'll probably get scratched!
- For some cats, prolonged petting can cause excitement and arousal. If you have one of those cats, count how many times you can pet him before he gets overstimulated and scratches or bites.
But as I'm typing this, I'm wondering if it's petting a cat that's so good for us, or if it's just being in their company. Going for a walk with nine cats trailing along behind me can brighten even the darkest day. So can sitting on the floor with all of them having a huge treat party or playing with Boccelli and Belle. A rendezvous with Ginger at our secret meeting place can make me happy for hours. Just being in their company makes me feel good, even if I'm not touching them.
How do your cats improve your mental health? Please comment below. I'd love to know.