For the love of pets

Professor discusses animal companions’ emotional impact
February 14, 2017

Jake, a yellow lab, helps students de-stress at the Mount’s Kaplan Family Library and Learning Center. 


You won’t be buying them candy or flowers this Valentine’s Day, but chances are your pets are among the greatest loves of your life.

According to Rae Fallon, Mount psychology professor, bonding with animals is easy because they love us unconditionally.

“We are a compassionate people, and we want to show our love in a way that won’t be rejected,” said Fallon. “Usually a pet will reciprocate; a human being won’t necessarily love back. When we give love to a domestic animal, we pretty much know they’ll love us too.”

She pointed out that well-known psychologist Sigmund Freud theorized that our two basic needs are love and work.

Love is “part of who we are,” said Fallon. “It’s a basic drive, it’s a basic need for us, like food and water. We need to feel that we are part of something besides ourselves. We need to know that we are valuable and capable.”

In her class on the psychology of stress, Fallon teaches students that oxytocin, the calming “hugging hormone,” is released when humans embrace. A similar effect can be achieved by interacting with an animal, she explained.

Research has indicated that watching, petting or talking to an animal can lower blood pressure and heart rate, and can also reduce mental distress and anxiety levels.

“In this world that’s overwhelmingly stressful for many of us, interacting with an animal may be a good way to handle it,” Fallon explained.

In what has become an end-of-the-semester tradition, trained therapy dogs are invited to the Mount library to give students, staff and faculty a chance to take a break.

Like all aspects of life, too much of a good thing – in this case, love of one’s pets – can be harmful, warns Fallon.

“Whether it’s an animal or another human being, anything where one is willing to give up his or her personhood is not healthy,” said Fallon. “We must take care of the other important things as well, like relationships with other people.”

The cliché rings true, notes the psychology professor: “Moderation is the key. The ancient Greeks had it right.”

Psychology is a popular field among Mount Saint Mary College students. The study of psychology educates about oneself and others, and helps establish careers in many areas, including counseling, social work, education, health professions and police work.