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Interacting with Dogs Sparks Activity in the Prefrontal Cortex

New study explores the neurological mechanisms behind the benefits of interacting with pets

Holden Galusha

The benefits of interacting with animals, primarily dogs and cats, has some backing in the scientific literature. According to the NIH, interacting with pets can decrease cortisol (stress hormone) levels, improve cardiovascular health, offer an avenue for children to improve their social skills, and more. However, the mechanisms behind these effects are not well understood. A new study published in PLOS ONE seeks to deepen our understanding of the neurological mechanisms behind effects. The researchers found that interacting with dogs increases brain activity, which may have implications for animal-assisted clinical therapy.

The research team, led by Rahel Marti of the University of Basil, recorded the brain activity of 19 participants via infrared neuroimaging while they each viewed, petted, or reclined with a dog leaning against their legs. As a control, the researchers also had the participants interact with Leo, a stuffed lion, the same way they did with the dogs. Leo had fur and had a water bottle inside to match the weight and temperature of a dog.

Across all participants, the results of interacting with both live dogs and Leo showed that the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in regulating social and emotional interactions, was more active. The greatest surge in activity occurred when petting real dogs. However, the researchers discovered that prefrontal cortex activity increased every time a participant interacted with a live dog, but successive interactions with Leo did not result in increased activity. According to the study, this suggests that “interactions with a dog can activate stronger attentional processes and elicit more emotional arousal than interacting with a nonliving stimulus.”

With studies such as this, researchers hope to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms behind the positive effects of interactions with animals. Developing this knowledge has potential positive ramifications for animal-assisted therapy. “Future studies will be needed to examine the issue of familiarity in detail and whether petting animals can trigger a similar boost of prefrontal brain activity in patients with socioemotional deficits,” according to a news release about the study.