Dog Running

During this pandemic, political turmoil, economic, and housing crises, beloved pets can be an oasis of comfort and joy. .The National Institute of Health (NIH)discusses the numerous mental and physical  health benefits of having pets.  Research suggests that having pets are linked with  people having lower blood pressure, less stress (lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol), improved heart health, increased social and emotional health, less loneliness and feelings of support. Therapy dogs are used in hospitals, nursing homes and therapy contexts to support healing in children and adults. I recently read an article about courts using therapy dogs in court to help witnesses testify in court proceedings. Research findings suggest that teens with diabetes learn to manage their diabetes after learning to take care of their fish. The point in the National Institute Health (NIH) newsletters discussion of the power of pets bringing mindfulness experiences of loving nonjudgmental attention, awareness,  and compassion to people in moments of suffering caught my attention. I often hear people talk about pets offering undivided, nonjudgmental,  unconditional loving and accepting  attention to them.  This post is a discussion  about  “fur love” and research findings regarding “fur love”. I also invite readers to share about their “fur-loves”.

 

 THOUGHTS  ON LOVE BY C.S. LEWIS

C. S. Lewis in his famous book, Four Loves, talks about : 1. Agape Love (God’s Unconditional Love), 2. Eros (Romantic Love), 3. Friendships (Philia)  4. Affection (Storage). C.S. Lewis briefly mentions animals and family in affectionate love and describes this love as “humble”, “private”, and part of our everyday loves, even if we recognize it or not. He describes this affectionate love like “old clothes”, “old jokes”, “soft slippers” and “thump of a sleepy dog’s tail on the kitchen floor”. There seems as if with affectionate love from family or pets, we are taken care of .

C.S. Lewis is brilliant in his observation that affection lies alongside the other kinds of  loves. I love C.S. Lewis’s highlighting of I Corinthians 13verse in the Bible  to describe the power of love. C.S. Lewis highlights this  Bible verse as this verse points out that regardless of vast accomplishments, gifts and talents, a person has nothing if he or she has no love.  This Bible verse describes beautifully and profoundly that love is “kind”, “patient”, “always protects”, “always hopes”, “always perseveres”, and “always trusts”. 

 

FUR-LOVE

One of the important steps that pets seem to teach people is to experience unconditional positive regard or unconditional love. I have members of my extended family who have pets. Many of my clients in psychotherapy have pets, cats, dogs, and lizards.  Everyone with beloved pets, often talk about their pets beaming with happiness, unconditional love, and joy when they come home. Most people I know with pets tell me that they love their pets and their pets reciprocate that love in a multitude of different ways. Although I do not have pets, I know that “Fur love” is a real experience for people.

People talk about experiences of  feeling safe and secure with their pets. People talk about the inherent trust in pets as they are described  as more honest and transparent than some people in their lives. Many people talk about the  experience of being  “known” and “seen” by their pets, as though, pets see their authentic selves and love them deeply and unconditionally. I hear people crying, laughing, and dancing with their pets. Essentially people seem to share  intimate emotional experiences with their pets without any fear of judgment from pets. Many people have shared with me that pets  (e.g. dogs and cats) are very attuned to their feelings and if they are experiencing negative feelings, their pets will sit next to them,  lick them, lie on their chests and laps. Pets are very generous with their loving and kind presence in people’s moments of suffering. The power of a pet’s powerful compassionate presence and witness to a person’s moments of suffering is so incredible in healing. Pets’ messages are profound: ” I am with you in the good and the bad”. Incredibly courageous  pets. My guess is petting (source of comfort and touch) the beloved animals in moments of suffering may trigger the parasympathetic system, nervous system which promotes calmness and stress. The parasympathetic system opposes the sympathetic nervous system which  triggers the stress response system (fight or flight response) in case of any perceived threat. Daily activities, like walking the dog, seem to be very healing for some people. I have heard so many times in therapy from clients that “I would not have made it during that dark part in my life without my dog”.

Pets are also described as sources of joy when people describe playing with their pets. When working with children and adolescents, I often hear about how their pets are the greatest things on the planet. People also seem to know their pets intimately: their personalities, quirkiness (“mustaches, hair on chin, freckles on their noses, and smiles), favorite toys and activities. I have heard  comments about pets, like he is “mama’s boy” or “she is a princess” and ” even if he/she is little, he/she thinks he is a lion when protecting me”. Pets are creatures who seem to know the art of living in the moment. They also seem to let go of grudges with a certain ease. People seem to view beloved pets as part of the family. Grief and loss issues regarding death of pets is also very real and is like losing a family member. People’s experiences of grief and loss in case of pet’s death  speaks to their great love of their pets.

WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT FUR-LOVE? 

I was curious about what science says about “fur love”.  Dr. Fugere (2020) on Psychology Today website discusses a research study by Berns, G. S., Brooks, A. M., & Spivak, M. (2015) where they utilize Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) (brain scan) on dogs. They found that  brain areas (caudate nucleus) of dogs were activated when dogs smelled cotton swabs with scent of people  they live. Their caudate nucleus did not become as activated when exposed to  stranger’s scent.   Caudate nucleus is a part of brain associated with positive experiences and rewards. Dr. Fugere’s (2020) article includes research conducted by   Dr. Fugere (2020) also discussed research findings by Aron, A. and his colleagues (2005), who studied brain scans of people in love.  Aron, A. and his colleagues (2005)   found  that people, who reported  intense, romantic love for their  partners, also demonstrate activation in these brain areas  (caudate nucleus) when people are shown pictures of loved ones, but, not when exposed to pictures of strangers.  Dr. Fugere (2020) and researchers express caution  that  we cannot interpret that dogs are “experiencing love” as people. However, it is fascinating that the same areas of the brain (caudate nucleus) are activated in brains of dogs and people, when they are exposed to people they love. Dogs and people have different brain structures. Despite caution in interpreting brain scans (which I get) , the research consistently supports that a healthy connection between pets and their owners leads to all kinds of good things, as discussed in the NIH article above.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The other question is whether brain scans can capture the true, vast and sacred essence of LOVE. I would argue definitely not.  C.S. Lewis is spot on in his writings about love Divine Love, “Fur Love” and Human Love: all sacred and holy ground. Peace Pilgrim, an American Saint, (please see earlier post) confirms the primacy of spiritual law of love and that anything done with love grows and prospers in this Universe. We definitely need more love in the world today.

 

Pets: “Fur Loves” Are Essential Workers Who Bring Love in the Pandemic.
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