Pets make us feel good. But what does the science say?

There’s something uncanny, mystical even, about their intuition.

Bodhi, the charmer, is the consummate wingman. He accompanies his dog-mom on errands and volunteer shifts — and, on occasion, first dates. The Australian labradoodle has a sixth sense for when she’s nervous or upset. A friend was the one who suggested his name, which in Sanskrit means “enlightened,” and Bodhi has lived up to its promise.

Arua, or Roo for short, got a second chance at life after the untimely death of her first owner. The African grey parrot likes poking around in the spice drawer and has been known to imitate sirens, sneezes and smoke alarms. She tips her head upside down for chin scratches and coos softly during cuddle sessions.

Meryl, whose gait is more waddle than walk, is particularly drawn to people with canes, wheelchairs or walkers. The dachshund-Jack Russell mix bows her dark, glossy head when you lean in for a kiss. Her brown eyes stare knowingly at all who stare back.

“It’s like holding an angel on a string,” Sheila McKinney, of Greenwood, said of Meryl.

“It’s just been magical. I don’t even know how to explain it.”

These are the beloved pets of Seattle. Our sources of goodwill, our stress-relievers, our social lubricants. 

People and their animals have long lived their lives in parallel — 30,000 years or so is our best estimate. Picture the soft, cool nuzzle of your dog. The rhythmic kneading of your cat’s paws. Conjuring images of our animal companions and how they make us feel is effortless, even ancestral.  

People tend to agree that pets are good for their mental health. Eighty-four percent of pet owners, for instance, say their animals have a mostly positive effect on their mental well-being, a March poll from the American Psychiatric Association found. Therapy animals are ubiquitous: they’re in airports, hospitals, nursing homes and schools. And service animals can be trained and licensed to assist people with mental health conditions.

But the nature of the psychological bond between humans and animals, and why these relationships can feel so beneficial for our mental well-being — it can feel indescribable, or spiritual — according to available research, is still very unclear. 

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Get in touch with us at mentalhealth@seattletimes.com.

The field of research devoted to studying human-animal interaction is relatively new. Although many researchers see the potential promise in studying these relationships, results from studies on animals and their relationship with humans’ well-being offer mixed results. Some conflate correlation with causation, or fail to capture whether it’s actually the pets or some other factor that’s making us happier or relieving our stress.

“There has been a big uptick in research in this area over the last 10 to 15 years, and the research I’m seeing is definitely much higher quality,” said Megan Mueller, associate professor of human-animal interaction at Tufts University. “But because the field is so broad, there’s still a lot that we don’t know.”

As loneliness, depression and anxiety become more pervasive — some of the more serious aftershocks of pandemic-era isolation — experts who study human-animal interaction say it’s time to dig more deeply into the potential power of pets on our psyche.

“You’d be hard-pressed to think about something else that that many families have in their home,” Mueller said; Seattle ranks fourth among the U.S. cities with the highest rates of pet ownership, and nationwide, a vast majority of households have pets.

“It’s worth understanding why we feel so strongly about these animal relationships.” 

Murky beginnings

A Chow Chow named Jofi was one of the first animals to influence our modern understanding of the therapeutic potential of animals.

In the 1930s, her owner Sigmund Freud noticed she brought a calming presence to his psychoanalysis sessions with patients, according to his biographer, Peter Gay. With Jofi in the room, patients were more willing to be open about their thoughts and feelings. Freud would also study his patients’ reactions to Jofi, and on occasion, use his observations to better grasp their state of mind. 

By the middle of the 20th century, a dog named Jingles had helped his owner, the psychologist Boris Levinson, stumble on something startling: A boy who had been so withdrawn his doctors recommended hospitalization spontaneously came out of his shell when Jingles was in the room. 

Levinson continued to include his dog in therapy sessions with other patients, but was hesitant to make too much of his anecdotal findings; he published papers where he acknowledged how unorthodox it was to include a dog in therapy, and many of his psychologist colleagues openly ridiculed his work

But the concept of “pet therapy,” a term Levinson coined, was born.

More researchers began studying the human-animal bond, including Leo Bustad, who led Washington State University’s veterinary medicine college in the 1970s and 1980s. By the late 1980s, though, there was still little reliable evidence that supported incorporating animals into mental health settings. Sample sizes were small and there was little standardization across studies or within the treatment community. 

“The research was not as dynamic because we weren’t doing gold-standard randomized control trials,” said Aubrey Fine, professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona and a pioneer of animal-assisted therapy who opened his psychology practice in 1987.

A group of mental health professionals including Fine were optimistic about animal-assisted therapy and pushed ahead anyway. He saw his work with animals as complementary to his more typical therapeutic practices. Over the years, Fine incorporated dogs, bearded dragons, a cockatoo, fish and other animals into his work with children. He has endless tales of the ways his animals helped captivate his patients during therapy sessions. And how, eventually, he helped develop therapeutic protocols to work in tandem with his animals.

Steadying factor

In the best of cases, our pets are nonjudgmental, loyal and loving. Many of us mourn their deaths as we would a family member’s. They can help us understand our best qualities, and our worst. When we’re kind to them, we’re often kinder to ourselves.  

This common understanding — not the image of a dog in a therapist’s office — is often what comes to mind when thinking about animals and mental health.

It’s also what drives people like McKinney, 65, and her pup, Meryl. 

On a recent Thursday afternoon, McKinney and Meryl were zigzagging from room to room at Foss Home and Village, a nursing home in Seattle where they volunteer each week. They walked past the muffled sounds of afternoon television and the calls of a Bingo game, McKinney blowing kisses to residents along the way.

Their first stop was Evelyn MacDonald. “I just wait and wait for you!” she exclaimed, as she edged up in her bed. “That’s why I come to you first!” McKinney replied. McKinney lifted Meryl into the welcoming arms of MacDonald, who was quick to catch a lick. “Oh, I love you so much,” MacDonald said. 

People here fit their entire lives into a single room. 

Pictures of grandchildren, porcelain figurines and books share shelf space with medical and hygiene supplies. McKinney is upbeat — she has endless nicknames for Meryl (Little Pickle, Chicken Noodle, The Sausage of Love, to name a few. She’s named after Meryl Streep. “She had a lot of roles to play,” McKinney said.) — and tries to keep it light. But she has her own way of acknowledging the finality of this place; her own mother died here about six years ago. 

On this day, a 102-year-old resident confides to McKinney: “When you come into a hospital and they say you’re going to be here until you die, you say, ‘What!’ ” McKinney points to drawings in cheerful colors posted above the woman’s bed. “You’ve been doing a bunch of living while you’re waiting to die!” she quips. The woman offers a small smile. 

Meryl brings her own warmth to the room. Betty-Ann Fry, who has lived at Foss since 2020, lets Meryl put her feet on her lap and sweet-talks the dog with names like “baby girl” and “my princess.” On a bulletin board, Fry has created a small shrine with photographs of Meryl. “Meryl-grams,” McKinney calls them: Meryl-themed greeting cards that she started sending to residents during the pandemic, and now sends over holidays. 

Dogs have always been McKinney’s “steadying factor,” through bouts of depression, anxiety and periods of healing from childhood trauma, she said. It made perfect sense to share Meryl’s light with others.

“She seems really drawn to people that are in crisis or are feeling off-balance,” McKinney said. “She just completes a connection. And almost without fail, the people that she comes in contact with say ‘I really needed that.’ ”

All the unknowns

How do these deeply held beliefs and personal experiences with animals, ones that many struggle to put into words, match up with what science tells us? 

Research doesn’t offer a simple story, like “dogs make us happy.” 

“Those who need that hardcore evidence are less willing to accept that little bit of unknown that is still out there,” said Phyllis Erdman, executive associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Education at Washington State University. 

Erdman’s interest in the relationships between animals and humans began in the 1980s when she was pursuing her doctoral degree in counseling. But she didn’t pursue formal work in the field until 2008.

At that point, a broader academic field devoted to the topic — what’s now called human-animal interaction and encompasses corners of the psychology, anthrozoology, biomedical and other fields — was only just beginning to pick up steam, Erdman said. At WSU in the mid 2000s, she’d gather six or seven colleagues at her house to talk about possible research avenues. “You kind of had to find your own way.”

In the years that followed, researchers began pursuing studies on a vast range of topics. The role of animals in developing empathy. How we process our grief when pets die. How interacting with animals affects stress, blood pressure and the immune system.

The past few years have been marked by a new level of rigor, and in some cases, support for long-held theories about our relationships with animals, experts say, in large part because there’s more interest in funding this research. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, for instance, shows children who interact with a dog they don’t know have a better mood and less anxiety than those who don’t. There’s growing evidence for some positive benefits of animal interactions on older adults, too.

There’s also a movement to professionalize the field of animal-assisted therapy and ensure the animals involved are treated in a safe and ethical manner.

Bellevue-based Pet Partners, one of the first national outfits to register therapy animals, helped launch a professional organization for people in the mental health field two years ago. Developing effective, standardized practices — one of the organization’s goals — would give the field more credibility, and help combat the unregulated and unproven corners of the animal-therapy world, said Taylor Chastain Griffin, executive director of the Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals. 

“Any place we might have therapy animals at play, we need it to be more than just something that feels good and sounds good,” Griffin said. “The field is responsible for the fact that we haven’t owned that and stepped into that.”

You just know

There’s some evidence that these small, shared moments with animals add up to something bigger than ourselves. 

For example, research shows that pet ownership helps people build friendships and broader networks in the communities where they live. 

Bodhi, Becky Farwell’s dog, gave her the motivation to get up and out of her house in West Seattle following several recent foot surgeries. 

Bodhi makes friends everywhere Farwell takes him. A teller at her bank once watched Bodhi when Farwell was traveling; at Home Depot, patrons notice Bodhi’s good manners and stop Farwell to ask where she got him. They volunteer together at libraries, schools, camps for children experiencing cancer diagnoses and at nursing homes. 

Bodhi is helping Farwell build connections, too. “I discovered I’m nobody without Bodhi,” she said. Bodhi calms her nerves, so she sometimes brings him on first dates. “You can talk about the dog right away, and that’s a good icebreaker.” 

Hope McCourt’s bird, Roo, saw her through a period of homelessness and serious depression. When she was more physically able, she’d put Roo in a cage or a special backpack so she could take the bird outside on walks in Ballard and Greenwood. “You can’t help but get curiosity from people out and about in the world when you take your pet parrot out,” McCourt said. “People are having conversations with you. And it opens (you) up to having some human contact.”

Roo, who can be quite chatty, sometimes chimes in with a whistle or a laugh.  

“She lifts your spirits. She just takes you from, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ to ‘Well, she needs me here and I need her, and we need each other,’” McCourt said. 

“It’s really difficult to describe. But you just know.”

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