Our animals don't just make us happier. They also make us healthier, and we do the same for them. "There's a reciprocal healing relationship between pets and humans, especially when they share a deep bond with each other," says Katenna Jones, an animal behaviorist at American Humane. Dogs and cats need to play for emotional, mental, and physical stimulation, and it's an excellent way to bond with them.
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Understand the pet prescription.
In the past decade, studies have repeatedly found that contact with dogs and cats strengthens our immune systems, lowers blood pressure, encourages exercise, improves self-esteem, and reduces stress and depression. It also decreases our risk of heart disease, helps children build up defenses against allergies and asthma, and improves physical and psychological well-being in seniors.
And there are ways to repay the favor. Stroking animals can lower their blood pressure and lessen anxiety, as well as trigger neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. "These chemicals are key to pain relief, motivation, and emotion, and promote feelings of safety and contentment," Jones says.
Try daily doses of bonding.
To feel a strong connection, an animal must directly associate an activity with you. Your dog may enjoy it when you take her to the park to run free, but that doesn't count as bonding time because you aren't sharing the experience. And while caring for your pet's basic needs—providing quality food, grooming, and health care—can reinforce a bond, it's important to make a conscious effort to connect, too.
To make the most of playtime, give your pet undivided attention, and also consider her innate traits. For instance, retrievers were bred to run and hunt, so they might like playing fetch or hide-and-seek with their toys. Cats are less social but love to be enticed with string toys, which elicit their natural predatory instincts. A gentle, soothing touch is important, too. Learn what your pet prefers (most animals will tolerate hugs and kisses but don't enjoy this show of affection). With dogs, a belly or chest rub often does the trick. Cats love to be stroked on the forehead, the neck, and between the ears while reveling in your eye contact.
"Using food is also great for bonding," says Marc Morrone, an American animal dealer and breeder. Giving your pet small treats during or after a potentially unpleasant task, such as nail clipping, can turn it into a bonding moment (she'll associate the experience with a reward—and you). The best time to bond? Anytime. "Pets should learn that good things happen at random moments," Morrone says.
Repetitious walks can become tedious for you and your dog, so set off without a destination or time limit. Explore a new neighborhood or hiking trail with your pet.
Hand over a snack.
Hand-feeding your cat a special treat such as cooked tuna or your dog a piece of cooked turkey or chicken reminds the animal that you're the provider and protector.
Take a catnap.
Cats love sleeping on soft objects and warm bodies, so find a sunny spot at home, spread out a few blankets, and snuggle up with your feline. Bend your legs or body to form a cozy hollow for her.
Learn a new sport.
Dogs and their owners can try activities such as agility training (obstacle courses) and flyball (relay races with ball retrieval), and even compete. Visit the American Kennel Club and the Northern American Flyball Association for more information.
Rub 'em down.
If your dog or cat likes to be petted and doesn't display fearful or aggressive behavior, try pet massage. Look into techniques such as Tellington TTouch, a method developed especially for animals.
Spread the joy.
You and your pet can get certified as an animal-assisted therapy team. This allows you both to volunteer in hospitals, schools, disaster-relief sites, and more. You'll be together while bringing the love and companionship of a pet to people in your community. Visit Pet Partners to learn more.