How Does Petting Your Dog Affect Your Brain?

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How Does Petting Your Dog Affect Your Brain?  

Jim Windell

           Who can you count on when you come home from a long day at the office?

           Who is likely to be in a great mood, be eager to play with you and wants nothing more than lick your face?

          Why, of course, it’s man’s best friend – his or her dog.

          The unconditional love of a dog can do more than just keep you company. Pets of all kinds, but especially pooches, can decrease your stress, improve your heart health, and even help children with their emotional and social skills.

           A majority of families in the U.S. have a pet, and 48 million of them have a dog. For much of the past 10 years or more scientists have been researching the health benefits of having a canine pet. Specific research findings reveal that interacting with animals has shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.

            But a new study led by Rahel Marti at the University of Basel in Switzerland reports that viewing, feeling, and touching your dog leads to increasingly higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  

           In the study, published in PLOS ONE, it is shown that this effect persists after the dogs are no longer present, but is reduced when real dogs are replaced with stuffed animals. The findings have implications for animal-assisted clinical therapy. 

 Because of previous research about interacting with animals, particularly dogs, we know some of the ways that animals help people cope with stress and depression. However, Marti and her associates think that a better understanding of the associated brain activity could help clinicians design improved systems for animal-assisted therapy. The prefrontal cortex might be particularly relevant because it helps regulate and process social and emotional interactions.

           In their most recent study, Marti and her colleagues found that activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain was non-invasively measured with infrared neuroimaging technology as 19 men and women each viewed a dog, reclined with the same dog against their legs, or petted the dog. Each of these conditions was also performed with Leo, a stuffed lion with fur that was filled with a water bottle to match the temperature and weight of the dogs. 

           The results of this study showed that prefrontal brain activity was greater when participants interacted with the real dogs, and that this difference was largest for petting, which was the most interactive condition. Another key difference was that prefrontal brain activity increased each time people interacted with the real dog. This was not observed with successive interactions with the stuffed lion, indicating that the response might be related to familiarity or social bonding.

       According to the authors, “The present study demonstrates that prefrontal brain activity in healthy subjects increased with a rise in interactional closeness with a dog or a plush animal, but especially in contact with the dog the activation is stronger. This indicates that interactions with a dog might activate more attentional processes and elicit stronger emotional arousal than comparable nonliving stimuli.”

            But will the effect found in this study in terms of petting a dog trigger a similar boost of prefrontal brain activity in patients with socioemotional deficits? That question is still open and, it is hoped, will be explored in future research.

             To read the original article, find with this reference:

Marti R, Petignat M, Marcar VL, Hattendorf J, Wolf M, Hund-Georgiadis M, et al. (2022). Effects of contact with a dog on prefrontal brain activity: A controlled trial. PLoS ONE 17(10): e0274833

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