Professor Kerryn Phelps on how pets change your brain chemistry


In 2013 did a group of cardiologists reviewed the evidence on pet ownership and heart disease for the American Heart Association. They concluded that “owning pets, especially dogs, is likely to be associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease”.

How is your brain health? As technology for studying brain function advances, we are collecting increasing evidence that having a pet positively changes your brain chemistry, and therefore your brain function.

The effect begins in childhood. There is evidence of a link between childhood pet ownership and a variety of emotional health benefits. Overall, pet ownership shows benefits for the emotional, cognitive, behavioral, educational and social development of children and adolescents. These effects are particularly evident in the areas of self-esteem, loneliness and social skills.

In the elderly, we know that pet ownership can improve a person’s mental health by providing company, purpose and purpose, alleviating loneliness, and promoting social interaction.

This is the effect of having a pet, but what is the underlying mechanism? What actually happens in the brain to bring about these positive changes?

Pets lower levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” and relieve depression, anxiety, and social isolation. Some neurotransmitters, including oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, have also been studied to see how they are affected when we interact with our pets.


Let’s take a closer look at these neurotransmitters.


Oxytocin is one of the body’s feel-good chemicals. It is produced in the hypothalamus and then transported to the posterior pituitary gland at the base of the brain and released there. Known as a neurotransmitter and hormone, it has a number of specific functions in women, including reproduction and orgasm. It also plays an important role in childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is released when a mother bonds with her child.

Oxytocin also has a number of psychological effects. It relieves feelings of stress and strengthens the feeling of trust and connectedness with others.

When you petting or petting your dog or cat, your oxytocin levels rise significantly, creating a sense of calm. This is the same reaction a mother has when holding her child.

There is no doubt that the emotional bond with a pet can be extremely strong, as many people say their pet is as much a family member as the human members.


As mentioned earlier, dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter, a chemical that is produced in the body and used to carry messages between brain cells.

Dopamine is involved in positive feelings and bonds. Abnormal dopamine levels in different parts of the brain have been linked to various neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and ADHD.

Dopamine is called the “pleasure hormone” because it is associated with the human experience of pleasure. When you are with your dog, dopamine is also released. This boosts both your mood and your long-term memory.


Serotonin is another type of neurotransmitter that has profound effects on mood. One type of antidepressant commonly prescribed, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), increase serotonin levels in the brain by blocking the reuptake of serotonin into nerve cells in the brain.

Researchers have found that petting dogs causes serotonin levels to rise. Elevated serotonin levels can make you feel calm, reduce anxiety, and promote feelings of happiness.

This makes your pet something of a natural antidepressant.

A word on practical matters


Of course, while all of this evidence is fascinating, choosing a dog cannot be made on an emotional basis. Many factors must be considered in making this decision, including the amount of time you have to train, exercise, and care for a dog, especially when they are puppies, and the financial and practical obligations as they get sick or older. Having a dog is a significant commitment and not for everyone. Other practical considerations include alimony and vet bills, which in the event of a mistake can add to a lot of financial stress.

You must also try to look ahead for up to 15 years or more. What does this mean for your personal life plans and the well-being of the animal?

Your heart or brain health is a positive asset, but not a reason to care for a pet.

Once you’ve worked through the practicals and confirmed that pet adoption is right for you and your family, you can expect some positive side effects for your health, especially your brain.

Sometimes the value of a relationship is most seen in its loss. This applies to pets.

When I lost Paris, who died of cancer at the age of 11, a friend said to me, “This is what you sign up for when you have a puppy. You just don’t notice it at this point. “

It was worth it.

Edited excerpt from This is how you keep your brain young by Professor Kerryn Phelps AM (Pan Macmillan), $ 34.99, issued September 28.

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