I find myself writing this piece today because it was 5 years ago on this day that my dog, Oscar (main photo), passed away from bone cancer at the age of just over 2. He came into my life two days before I started writing my book about self love / self esteem, ‘I Heart Me’, and he passed away two days before I submitted the final manuscript to my publisher (Hay House). He was in my life for the exact duration I was working on the book. It helped me deal with the loss to believe that he came into my life to help me.
One of the things he inspired me to do was research some of the beneficial effects of animals in our lives. It turns out that dogs are good for the heart.
In a study of 369 patients who’d had a heart attack, for example, the chances of them having another heart attack within a year was 400% less if they had a dog. While we might logically assume that this figure is entirely due to the exercise of taking a dog for a walk, research suggests that exercise is only part of it. A significant contributing factor is the quality of relationship a person has with their dog.
Research published in ‘Science’, found that when dog owners interacted warmly with their dogs for 30 minutes, for example, oxytocin levels increased by 300% in the humans (and by 130% in the dog). Yes, the dog benefits too. Key is that these numbers only apply to people with good human-dog relationships. There is much less change in oxytocin levels when relationships are not close.
What’s the importance of oxytocin? Well, as well as being a reproductive hormone, it has many other roles in the body. In the brain, it aids bonding and trusting behaviour. When we eat food, it helps digestion by improving gastric motility. It helps wound repair by aiding capillary growth and working with growth factors. But it plays a huge role in the cardiovascular system. It is a cardioprotective hormone – it protects the cardiovascular system. It does this in two main ways, first by reducing blood pressure and second by clearing blood vessels of inflammation and oxidative stress (free radicals).
We find the same kind of effect in human relationships too. People with better quality relationships tends to have healthier cardiovascular systems.
I call oxytocin ‘the kindness hormone’ and have done in my books on kindness (Why Kindness is Good for You, The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness (my illustrated book)’), because it is associated with feelings that can be brought on by kindness.
Closeness produces oxytocin, hugs produce it, love produces it, friendship produces it, affection, compassion, gentleness too. It is certainly associated with behaviours of the heart. It’s nice that Nature rewards these heart behaviours with a healthier heart. It’s as if Nature is saying, ‘Yes! More of this please’. Just as we train a dog by offering rewards for certain behaviour, perhaps Nature is training us humans by rewarding our good behaviours.
Dogs don’t ask for much. Other than food, they really just ask that you love them. That makes a happy dog. The emotional reward you get is some happiness. The physical reward is a boost to your cardiovascular system. Happy dog, happy heart!
Of course, the same also applies to other animals we bond with, like cats, rabbits, horses. Indeed, a study of rabbits indeed found that those shown more affection had healthier hearts. All animals have an oxytocin system. Oxytocin is so important to us, and animals, that the oxytocin gene is one of the oldest genes we have, at around 500 million years old. That it’s with us after all this time tells us how important it is for health – ours and that of animals.
It’s the love and kindness that we show each other and to animals that matters.
Be kind. Show compassion and affection. Be gentle. With each other and with animals.
Some things in life are really quite simple.