Now more than ever, the health benefits of veganism are no secret. Any diet rife with plant-based superfoods and rich with vitamins and nutrients is bound to bolster physical well-being. But it may be more than quinoa and kale that makes veganism an exercise in health improvement. To be cruelty-free is to lead an ethical existence in which animals are seen as fellow beings deserving of a natural life (and not crowded in unsanitary wetmarkets where the next pandemic may be lurking). To look through this lens of compassion, companionship, empathy, and altruism, is to endow our bodies and minds with emotional and physical well-being that goes beyond the standard health benefits of plant-based living.
One of the greatest health epidemics facing our nation is stress—the American Psychological Association reports that 73 percent of US residents experience psychological symptoms of stress while 77 percent experience physical symptoms. This mental tension can manifest itself in a plethora of prevalent health conditions including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and premature death. In response to our state of increased worry and anxiety, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical drugs were routinely prescribed, self-help books became a billion dollar industry, and therapists experienced an unprecedented boom in business. In short, people are looking for some way, any way, to chill out. But there is a burgeoning field of research in which health professionals are finding that the unspoken bond between animals and humans is an effective means to naturally alleviate stress.
Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, is at the forefront of this research. She first witnessed the calming effect that animals have on humans while observing the VCU Medical Center’s therapy dog program. Baker noticed how patients would “light up” and the staff would smile upon being visited by the canines. “Patients’ anxiety levels decreased, their fear before a serious medical procedure was decreased, and our staff’s stress hormone cortisol was decreased,” she says. In further studies, Baker and her colleagues witnessed dogs help relieve mental tension in people who were in notoriously stressful situations like the workplace or at school during exam time, which may be due to the animals’ ability to regulate biololgoical responses to stress. “We believe that interacting with dogs moderates the impact of stress physiologically with our hormones, our brainwaves, our heart rate, and our blood pressure,” she says.
The mental calmness and physical relaxation that dogs instill in humans may partially explain why people who have canine companions fare better health-wise than those who don’t. One study conducted in Germany, which surveyed 9,000 people in 1996 and 2001, found that those who had a companion animal, whether it be a fish, horse, bird, or dog, visited the doctors far less than those who did not have an animal companion. Other comprehensive studies conducted in China and Australia had similar results—participants who had dogs in their households used less sick days and utilized fewer healthcare services. Earlier this year, a panel of experts from the American Heart Association released a statement acknowledging that the presence of dogs may have a powerful effect on preventing cardiovascular disease, a condition that kills more than 500,000 Americans every year (and can largely be linked to stress). These findings have been supported by previous research, including a 2007 study, in which scientists from Queens University in Ireland found that people who had canine cohorts had lower blood pressure as well as lower cholesterol levels.
What makes dogs such reliable stress-relievers may be attributed to their genuineness—they are unhampered by the social constraints and preconceptions that even the most well-meaning person may possess. “[Animals] provide a form of social support, and they don’t judge,” says Baker. “There are very few human relationships that would be as non-evaluative as pets are.”
Brinda Jegatheesan, vice president of development of the International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organizations, agrees. “The benefit that animals give [people] is huge, and it’s simply because animals don’t pretend to be who they are,” she says. Jegatheesan has experienced this uninhibited connection between animals and humans through her experiences with people of all ages, including senior citizens, adolescents in juvenile detention centers, and school children. “[Kids] learn to love and they learn what it means to be loved without condition and without prejudgments,” says Jegatheesan. “There is no discrimination … animals love them simply for who they are.”
Dogs are by no means the only animals who display high levels of emotional depth and intelligence compatable with humans. Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, has experienced this firsthand in his organization’s rescued residents—and he has seen visitors who have the chance to interact with the animals have the same revelations. “All of these animals can develop relationships with humans and other animals,” Baur says, referring to the sanctuaries’ playful calves who bask in the sun, the curious turkeys who approach visitors, and soulful pigs who love belly rubs. “All of these animals have complex emotional and cognitive lives.”
One of the greatest merits that we can gain from animals is reciprocating the compassion that they give to us. For many, this may mean adopting one of the millions of cats or dogs that are brought into animal shelters ever year, but for vegetarians this outlook of empathy and altruism extends to all animals through consumer habits and moralistic outlooks. While abstaining from fat-filled fast food is a service to our physical well-being, the compassionate mindset of a cruelty-free diet may be an act of health in and of itself. “Vegans who are motivated by the desire not to hurt animals, will receive the benefits [of compassion],” says Emma Seppala, associate director of the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. And those benefits are legion—research has found that harboring a benevolent mindset can buffer stress, ward off depression, increase life longevity, reduce the risk of heart disease, and even heal humans on a cellular level by decreasing inflammation. Furthermore, compassion has been found to improve the interactions we have with our friends, co-workers, colleagues, and even those we encounter in what some may perceive as the most treacherous social climb—the dating world. According to Seppala, during one study males and females were surveyed on what traits they found the most attractive in others. “The top-rated thing that [men and women] looked for was kindness,” she says, “Compassion is sexy.”
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