Science Explains Why Dog Really Is Man's (and Woman's) Best Friend

The mental health benefits can't be denied when something as simple as petting your dog releases a chemical in your brain that makes you feel safe

It’s no secret that the bond between a human and their pet can be a powerful one. Scientists say dogs have likely been “man’s best friend” for thousands of years. But beyond an endless supply of slobbery kisses and games of fetch, what about spending time with our dogs makes us so happy and calm? 

“One of the main mental health benefits of having a pet is companionship,” Lois Krahn, Professor of Psychiatry at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, told NBCLX.

Krahn said something as simple as petting your dog releases a chemical in your brain that makes you feel safe.

“When a human pets an animal, a dog or a cat, the brain releases Oxytocin, which is a chemical that is kind of a nesting, care taking chemical that can enhance our sense of well-being,” Krahn explained. “There's been research shown that people who spend time caring for their companion animals can be more relaxed. And that is evidenced because they may have better control of blood pressure with fewer blood pressure spikes.”

Krahn, who is a specialist in sleep medicine, also said pet owners may have slower heart rate and a degree of muscle relaxation that non-pet owners may not.

At the end of a long day, some pets can even help their humans sleep better.

“Sleep issues could potentially improve due to the presence of a companion animal,” said Dr. Krahn, “This is based on several assumptions; that the animal is mature and happy, the animal is a reasonable size, not overly large, but having a companion animal nearby at night can help combat the feeling of being alone or being lonely because the animals there and the person is not truly alone,” Dr. Krahn said.

Even though our dogs can’t track time, they can also help create healthy routines in their humans’ lives.

“They know when it's time to eat, they know when it's time to go out, and they can be fairly structured and then help create more structure for their owner. People who are dog owners who take their dogs for walks tend to be in better physical shape.”

In a time of social distancing, and with more and more of our personal and professional interactions moving online, having a furry friend could go a long way.

I believe that a pandemic is a major challenge to mental health because there are so many changes. We are social beings, so keeping distance from other people for the sake of preventing illness is very hard. Some people who live alone have been by themselves for weeks and weeks. At this point, also there's so much uncertainty about jobs, the economy, and financial security. That's a huge source of worry for many of us.”

Pets are a big responsibility, and they certainly can’t solve all of your problems. Keeping a healthy mind and body takes work. But going through it with a pet who loves you unconditionally can really help along the way. 

Correction: Due to an editing error the chemical Oxytocin was originally misidentified. We apologize for this error.