Does Petting a Cat Release Endorphins?

by Madeline Masters, Demand Media
    Science has proven what we already know -- cats make us feel better on even our worst days.

    Science has proven what we already know -- cats make us feel better on even our worst days.

    If you're a cat owner, you've probably noticed it's pretty difficult to stay angry, anxious or sad once you start petting your kitty. Scientists have noticed this too, which is why a number of studies have been conducted that proved petting a cat can release endorphins and improve health.

    Petting a Cat Releases Endorphins

    You're doing a lot of things at once when you pet a cat. First, you're interacting positively with an animal. Second, you're moving in a steady, rhythmic way as your hand strokes the kitty's fur. Third, you're devoting at least partial attention to this calming activity. The late Dr. Johannes Odendaal, research professor of the Life Sciences Research Institute in Pretoria, South Africa, conducted a study with dogs and humans in 2003 that indicated petting a dog released endorphins as well as other "feel good" chemicals in the brain, including dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin, and norepinehrine. Dr. Odendaal also said that the same physiological effects would result from petting a cat.

    What Are Endorphins?

    Endorphins are hormones the body releases in reaction to stress or pain. They're the body's natural opiates, which attach themselves to receptors in the brain to ease pain. Many activities can release endorphins, such as intense exercise, eating hot peppers, eating chocolate or laughing.

    Health Benefits of Endorphin Release

    Endorphins decrease pain and stress. Stress is one of the leading factors in heart disease and cancer development. Although endorphin levels were not directly tested as part of his research, Dr. Adnan Qureshi of the Zeenat Qureshi Stroke Research Center concluded from his research in 2009 that cat ownership significantly reduced the risk of heart disease in at-risk patients. He even suggested in his report that owning a cat could be an effective form of prevention for patients at risk of heart disease.

    Petting Your Cat Reduces Stress

    Studies like the one completed by Dr. Karen Allen, State University of New York-Buffalo Department of Oral Diagnostic Sciences, in 2002 show that having pets reduces our stress levels, even more so if we're interacting with them. In Allen's tests, she measured heart rate and blood pressure in test subjects before, during and after stress-inducing situations, such as performing mental arithmetic. Her results indicated that pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressure than non-pet owners in all three situations. "People perceive pets as important, supportive parts of their lives," Allen wrote in her research report, "and significant cardiovascular and behavioral benefits are associated with those perceptions." Dr. Allen's research further proves that spending time with Kitty melts our stress away by releasing mood-elevating endorphins.

    Pets in Therapy

    Research scientists and medical professionals acknowledge animals' ability to boost mental and physical health, which is why Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) was developed. In AAT, patients interact with companion animals for many purposes, such as to relieve depression, reduce anxiety and bring a sense of well-being and purpose to people who are suffering in some way. Because interacting with animals can release endorphins, AAT is used to help people in many ways, from boosting mood in nursing home residents to helping developmentally disabled children improve their cognitive function.

    About the Author

    Madeline Masters works as a dog walker and professional writer. In the past she has worked as a fitness columnist, fundraising copywriter and news reporter. Masters won two Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Awards in 2009. She graduated from Elizabethtown College with a Bachelor of Arts in English.

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