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  • Writer's pictureAlexander James

Animal Magic: Why Dogs Can Can Help Us Overcome Depression

National Animal Therapy Day is coming up on 30 April. It’s a time to celebrate the role that our furry friends play in the lives of humans, whether we have a pet of our own or we simply enjoy observing animals from a distance. 

Dogs are the most common type of therapy animal, but they can also be many in many other forms, such as cats, horses, rabbits, or even reptiles and fish. The animals are especially trained and selected to be calm and  bring comfort to humans, and will have a naturally sociable and friendly personality.

Pets have always been kept by humans as a source of companionship, affection, and even given a higher status. For example, the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, and many cultures have sacred and holy animals. The therapeutic power of animals was recognised by Florence Nightingale, who is credited with founding modern nursing practices.

During the late 1800s, Nightingale observed that pets offered comfort and relief to patients of all ages in psychiatric wards. The famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud also had faith in the therapeutic potential of animals, and he apparently often brought his own dog to therapy sessions to help the patient feel more comfortable. 

Dogs are ideally suited to this purpose because most of them do not have a natural wariness of human beings and are instantly friendly. It is already well known that petting an animal can trigger the release of ‘feel good’ hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, and prolactin. 

Owning a dog can also bring physical and social benefits to a patient, because it gets them out and about on walks and helps them to meet new people. This encourages fitness and can generally be a distraction from the everyday stresses and strains of life. However, so far these observations have mostly been general rather than scientific.

Now, a new study has offered further scientific insight into the beneficial effects of interacting with dogs. Neuroscience News reports that the researchers from Konkuk University, South Korea, have found that spending time with dogs reduces stress and increases the brain waves associated with relaxation and concentration.

While this has already been widely accepted, it was previously based on broad observations and measurements, such as patient feedback or measuring hormone levels in the body. 

The new study was much more specific, using EEG technology to measure the electrical activity of the brain during eight distinct interactions with the dog. These included grooming, playing, and feeding. The results showed that these activities resulted in enhanced alpha and beta oscillations, which are related to concentration.

The participants reported less stress, depression and fatigue after carrying out all of the activities. The authors noted that the participants were likely to be keen to take part in the research because they had a natural fondness for animals, which might have biassed the results.

However, they concluded that the research could be a valuable basis for more targeted animal therapy in the future. 

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