Celebrating Valentine’s Day with pets has heart-healthy benefits for you and maybe your pets too!


    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    Sometimes there’s nothing sweeter than showing love for your pets on Valentine’s Day.

    “It’s incredibly important to talk about how companion animals impact our lives, particularly on a holiday like Valentine’s Day. Our companion animals are a member of the family,” said Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist in the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. Some of center’s research is sponsored by Purina. Carlisle said celebrating Valentine’s Day benefits people and animals. For starters, it can ease loneliness and depression.

    “Valentine’s Day is this holiday for couples and romance and love. And for those people who do not have a significant human other, those companion animals can really help fill that social role and provide companionship, comfort and unconditional love,” said Carlisle.

    For a dog owner, Carlisle said being loving to dogs may be one way their loving heart stays healthy. Dog walking, for example, is a loving thing to do with heart-healthy benefits for people and dogs.

    “People can be more likely to stick to a fitness routine if they’re doing it with a companion animal. As the trend has been for people to have more obesity, that same trend has trickled out to our best friends,” Carlisle said. “The American Heart Association acknowledges that having a companion animal can really contribute to people’s cardiovascular health. Some of that may be through less loneliness and depression, and decreased stress, but there’s increased physical activity, particularly for those people who live with dogs.”

    Carlisle explained how research has shown that simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone, cortisol. And social interaction between people and their dogs actually increase levels of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, which is the same hormone that bonds mothers to babies.

    “Talking about Valentine’s Day, oxytocin is really known as the love hormone. We know that both dogs and people can get that elevation in oxytocin when they are engaged with one another,” she said.

    The cortisol-lowering and oxytocin-boosting benefits can also help keep blood pressure at bay.

    “Being able to do something special for our dogs and our cats, we are benefiting at well,” Carlisle said.

     And speaking of cats, the Feline Genetics and Comparative Medicine Lab is the research laboratory of Leslie Lyons, PhD. Her lab is also nicknamed the Lyons’ Den. She is a Professor of Comparative Medicine at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.

    Lyons said the simple acts of hugging and petting pet cats on Valentine’s Day and every day of the year is known to lower blood pressure, which is heart healthy, reducing the risk of heart disease.

    “Several studies have shown that actually petting your cat – so probably taking the time to sit down, relax, pet your cat, give your cat some nice long strokes and take that moment of timeout – actually helps to lower people’s blood pressures,” said Lyons. “And of course, if we have lower blood pressure and interacting with our companion animals, our pet cats and dogs will certainly add to our heart health.”

    Celebrating Valentine’s Day with your pets is not just about taking time out for your dogs and cats.

    “Research on fish, merely watching fish, can lower people’s blood pressure. Health benefits are related to the attachment to the companion animals,” said Carlisle. “And so, the best match for a person may be a quiet bunny or a guinea pig, maybe it’s their chickens outside that they engage with.”

    So, Valentine’s Day just might be the perfect day to spread the love to all creatures, both great and small.