Pets boost positive emotions
November 27, 2013
Puppy love: Jackie Meiners adopted Charlie from Animal Rescue of Carroll. Studies have shown that interaction with animals promotes production of oxytocin in the brain, promoting positive emotions. Meiners believes Charlie can help her deal with her bipolar disorder.
Sun, rain, sleet or snow, good day, bad day, hectic, slow, one thing remains constant for pet owners everywhere - when you turn that key in the door at the end of the day, you'll be greeted by a furry face and a wagging tail.
"They're always there for you," explained Nicolle Johnson, shelter director for Animal Rescue of Carroll. Johnson owns three dogs and one cat and is currently fostering two other felines. "If something is wrong, they won't try to fix it, they'll just love you regardless."
This unconditional love has been touted by animal rescue shelter advocates for years, but a growing body of scientific research supports the claims that pets can be good for the heart - figuratively and literally.
People who walk their dogs each day spend that much more time exercising. Animals can also be trained to detect various health issues, such as seizures and strokes. In addition, interacting with a pet can increase levels of oxytocin in the brain, triggering positive emotions, said Kurt Volkert, coordinator for the mental health clinic at St. Anthony Regional Hospital.
"(It) helps people to feel good, feel happy, feel relaxed," he explained. "It is thought to be released during hand hugging, hand holding, caressing. Oxytocin helps people to feel happy and trusting. It also helps people be in a state of readiness to heal and grow new cells."
This ability of animals to promote love, companionship, responsibility and empathy makes them extra beneficial to individuals with mood disorders, Volkert added.
"Pets provide a sense of being known and understood," he said, enabling patients to feel "more connected to the world. "They may feel a connection with the pet or even that the pet 'forces' them to connect with other people. They help build a sense of self-worth and -confidence."
Pets can also provide a "sense of purpose" or order and stability by requiring an individual to follow a routine to feed and water and care for the animal.
According to Karen Schouten, volunteer with Animal Rescue of Carroll, at least three dogs have been adopted from the shelter in the past two months by individuals who thought a pet would help them better deal with a mental disorder.
One of these individuals was Jackie Meiners, 32, who adopted her dog, Charlie, about a month ago. Charlie is a small, 5-year-old, black-and-white pomeranian-terrier mix who wags his tail constantly and kisses any hand that reaches out to pet him.
"I'm not as stressed," said Meiners, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 18. Bipolar disorder is characterized by drastic shifts in mood and energy that can impact an individual's ability to carry out daily tasks and maintain relationships.
She credits Charlie with this relative calm, though she has had him only for a few weeks.
"Dogs can sense when people are not feeling good, when something is wrong," Meiners said.
In October, Meiners broke up with her boyfriend and ended up moving back in with her mother, who agreed that getting a dog was a good idea. Meiners contacted the Animal Rescue of Carroll. She said that the shelter had a reputation for making sure the animals were healthy, up to date on their shots, and suitable for the individual looking to adopt.
"He's house-trained, and he loves kids," said Meiners, adding that the latter was especially important because her pet needed to get along with her 11 nieces and nephews.
A patient with a mental disorder deals with it on a day-to-day basis, Meiners explained.
"You realize it's just something you have to live with, to learn to live with," she said. "You want it to go away, but it doesn't go away."
It feels good to know that Charlie will be at the door when she gets home, or that he'll curl up on the bed at night if she wants to talk.
But he also keeps her on her toes, she said, adding that she walks far more now than she did before.
And he is affectionate - "a total lapdog," Meiners said with a laugh, waving a hand at the pup curled up on her legs as she sat on a kitchen stool on a crisp weekday morning.
Meiners said that she hasn't had to change her medicine since she adopted Charlie.
"I've noticed a change in myself since I got him," she said. "I'm thankful I found a dog that helps make me happy."
Schouten said she is sure Charlie feels the same way. He had been dumped in a field and discovered by a farmer who tried to take care of him, but had breathing troubles when the dog was inside.
"He would have been bait" if he'd been left outside, said Schouten. Instead, Animal Rescue of Carroll took in the animal and fostered him until he was adopted about one week later.
Small dogs tend to be adopted more quickly, as well as particular breeds, said Johnson, recalling a couple who drove all the way from Illinois to adopt a Dalmatian puppy. Labradors often take longer to find homes, and cat adoptions are slow this time of year.
Animal Rescue of Carroll does not currently have its own shelter building. The cat shelter is located in Carroll, while the dog shelter is located several miles outside Carroll on private property.
"It gets to be difficult," Johnson said of coordinating volunteers to run the animal rescue. It's also a challenge when people hope to adopt because there is no volunteer able to sit at the shelter all day, which means people also have to coordinate times with volunteers to see any of the animals available for adoption.
However, the ARC board hopes to build its own facility by the end of 2015.
"It will be great to get everybody under one roof," said Johnson.
Despite the challenges, she said, she can't imagine not being involved with Animal Rescue of Carroll.
"It makes me feel alive to help someone who can't speak for themselves," she said.
According to the shelter's website, more than 1,000 pets have been re-homed since the rescue began in 2006. So far this year, 89 animals have been adopted, said Johnson.
Cost to adopt a cat is $75, and cost to adopt a dog is $125. Those fees help the shelter recoup costs to feed the animals and rent the respective cat shelter and dog kennels.
Animal Rescue is a no-kill shelter, said Johnson. An animal is only euthanized if the majority of the board deems it dangerously aggressive or agrees with a veterinary assessment that it is too ill.
There are currently 14 cats and nine dogs listed on the shelter's website as available for adoption. To become a pet owner, visit animalrescueofcarroll.org to apply, or call the shelter at 712-790-9116.
"I encourage anyone to go to a shelter. It's more satisfying to get an animal who needs you," Johnson said. "You meet an animal and fall in love. They adopt you."