It's something cat owners do many times a day, everyday, usually without even thinking about it - pet their cat. It is probably the most personal, and intimate way we regularly interact with our kitty. Why do we do it? Why do we both enjoy it? How does it benefit ourselves and our cats? What is the power of petting?
The Popularity of PettingWhy do cats like being petted? The traditional answer has been that it reminds them of their mother licking them as a kitten. Newer theories have suggested it may be because when we pet them, we leave our scents on their coats, and mixing with their scents creates a social bond which increases a cat's feeling of security and comfort. Others think they like it just because it feels good, like a good massage.
Frequently, our cats rub up against us seeming to ask us to pet them. "The traditional response has always been its marking behaviour. That they kind of bump their heads and rub against you to mark you as their territory. I think there is probably much more to it than that, sometimes I wonder if they are petting us," said Dr. Penny Bernstein, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, at Kent State University, Stark Ohio Campus. She believes that humans enjoy petting cats both for the feel of their fur and as a way to connect with another being. It's more difficult in our culture to touch another person whenever you felt like it. In contrast, most of the time you can just reach out and pet your cat at will.
Dr. Bernstein conducted a study on petting and one of her findings was that some cats enjoyed being petted in specific rooms and often tried to lead their human into a room to be petted. "It did seem that most people could cite a solicitation, many reported that their cats would ask for petting by doing various things, so in that sense there is a routine or a leading ritual. It's more like they're training you. They know that if they do these things they'll get this reward, except we didn't train them, they trained us," said Dr. Bernstein.
We pet our cats everyday but many of us don't realize how powerful this simple act is for the health and well-being of ourselves and our cats. Science is changing that.
Petting and Brain WavesAlexali Brubaker, a graduate student in Psychology at San Francisco State University, is part of a project: "Psychophysiological Effects of Positive Human-Animal Interaction." Ms. Brubaker and her colleagues are studying the effect of people petting either a cat or dog while measuring their brain waves using an EEG recorder. Their research is looking at two of the four major brain waves, alpha and theta. Past research has demonstrated that when a person has a lowered immune system or is depressed, the alpha brain waves coming from their right and left frontal lobe are unbalanced. Research has also shown that when a person has low anxiety resulting from anti-anxiety medication, their theta brain waves increase.
Ms. Brubaker and her team tested individuals' brain waves while petting a stuffed toy and while petting a real cat or dog. People were tested while performing a stress test in the laboratory and while resting. Their results were dramatic. "When the person had the real pet, it didn't matter whether they were in the resting condition or doing the stress test, their theta waves increased and that is consistent with relief of anxiety," said Ms. Brubaker. The team's results also showed that "greater alpha waves on the left side, which indicated depression and a depressed immune system, evens itself out and becomes less pronounced when you are accompanied by a real pet, either at rest or doing the stress test, which is strongly suggestive of a lessening of depression and a stronger immune system," said Ms. Brubaker.
"We can see on the computer screen numbers we can analyze which show there is statistical significance that petting your cat lowers your stress level and improves your immune system. This is really encouraging both as a researcher and as a pet lover," said Ms. Brubaker.
Petting and Blood PressureMany researchers have demonstrated that blood pressure is reduced when a person pets a cat. Dr. Cindy Wilson, Ph.D., co-editor of Companion Animals in Human Health, says that the data is building that petting cats and dogs can reduce blood pressure, and this is important because, "with anxiety, your blood pressure goes up, your heart rate gets faster and too much of it— sustained anxiety, or hypertension— over a long period of time can cause really detrimental health problems and psychological problems," she explains. Higher blood pressure, means a higher risk of heart attack. It turns out this effect work both ways. Veterinarians Andrea Looney and Anna Glazer while at the Cornell Feline Health Center performed an experiment where they attached a tiny cuff on the leg of a cat to take its blood pressure. After just five minutes of petting, the cat's blood pressure dropped 25 points. It turns out petting your cat is heart healthy for both of you.
Petting's Most Amazing PowerOne scientist has now taken this research to a new and exciting level. Dr. Johannes Odendaal, Research Professor of the Life Sciences Research Institute, and author of Pets and Our Mental Health, along with his colleagues conducted experiments taking blood from humans and dogs, both while the person petted the dog and before. They measured the change in several neurochemcials found in the brain including; Dopamine, Oxytocin, Prolactin, Beta-endorphin, and Norepinehrine all of which directly influence such feelings and emotions of exhilaration, positive excitement, pleasurable experiences, social bonding, sense of well-being and contentment, and feelings of comfort and security. In addition, they measured another chemical,Cortisol, which increases during stress and can have a negative effect upon the immune system, leaving the body open the illnesses.
Their results were amazing. They found statistically significant increases in all the positive brain chemicals, in both the human and the dog, while the person petted the dog, as well as a decrease in the chemical Cortisol. Would petting a cat reveal the same results? "The answer is yes. In the context of petting a cat where blood pressure decreases, it is expected that the same neurochemical changes in the brain would have taken place - not because of the decreased blood pressure, but as part of the complex physiological processes taking place during positive interaction," said Dr. Odendaal. Would the cat also experience the same beneficial effects of the petting upon their neurochemicals? "Cats will have similar health benefits resulting from similar experiences and similar physiological changes. The difference does not lie in the species, but in the positive experience with an animal. The underlying mechanism/theory to the results is that if the social need for positive interaction is fulfilled, pleasant feelings associated with specific neurochemicals will help to relieve social stress and anxiety," continued Dr. Odendaal.
"From the affects of the brain chemicals mentioned above, it is clear that they could play a role in relieving depression. What is more important than the clinical measurement of physiological changes, is that people suffering from depression reported in psychological studies relief of depression after positive interaction with animals. It seems very likely that positive human-animal interaction will relieve everyday depression, which the average person experiences resulting from changes in neurochemicals associated with such interaction. The same applies to general feelings of anxiety," said Dr. Odendaal.
The researchers also measured the differences between people petting an unfamiliar dog and petting their own dog. It turned out the effects are greater when a person interacts with their own pet. "Bonding with familiar animals will have a more predictable positive effect than the interaction with unfamiliar animals," said Dr. Odendaal.
There are many studies regarding how pets in animal assisted therapy (AAT) programs help people with disabilities, the elderly and other special groups. Dr. Odendaal believes a basic truth is often being overlooked "Much is said in the media about animal-assisted therapy, but I have noted in veterinary practice (I have been in companion animal practice for 14 years) that the animals in our homes do not receive the credit for enhancing our wellbeing that they deserve," said Dr. Odendaal.
Such a simple act that has such a powerful effect. It is no wonder petting is so popular. "Interactions between people are complicated, while interactions with animals seem less so. To have a cat that you can pet all the time and then wants you to do it some more when you stop is a very rewarding thing," said Dr. Bernstein.
Written by Brad Kollus
Brad Kollus is an award winning Cat Writer specializing in the Feline-Human Bond. He lives with his wife Elizabeth, their son Dylan, and four cats, Scotty, Spanky, Lizzie, and Rosie in New Jersey.
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