Psychophysiological mechanisms underlying the potential health benefits of human-dog interactions: A systematic literature review

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International Journal of Psychophysiology


While the symbiotic nature of human-dog relationships and perceived benefits to human health have attracted much scientific interest, the mechanisms through which human-dog interactions may confer health benefits to humans are still poorly understood. The aim of this systematic literature review was to synthesize evidence of physiological changes associated with human-dog interactions with relevance to human health. Electronic databases were systematically searched (PubMed, MEDLINE with full text, Scopus, PsycINFO, CINAHL Plus with Full Text, and Web of Science Core Collection) for relevant studies. Of the 13,072 studies identified, 129 met the inclusion criteria, with approximately half being randomized trials (Level 2) based on the Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine level system. Measures employed to study human physiological changes associated with human-dog interactions most commonly involved cardiac parameters and hormones, with negligible research of brain activity. The main positive findings were increases in heart rate variability and oxytocin, and decreases in cortisol with human-dog interactions. These physiological indicators are consistent with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and oxytocinergic system (OTS), and down-regulation of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity. These results provide evidence of specific pathways through which human-dog contact may confer health benefits, likely through relaxation, bonding, and stress reduction. However, these findings should be interpreted contextually due to limitations and methodological differences. Previous research using other biological variables was limited in quantity and quality, thus impeding firm conclusions on other possible mechanisms. Further research is needed in some psychophysiological domains, particularly electroencephalography, to better understand central nervous system (CNS) effects. The findings of this review have implications for human-dog interactions to positively affect several stress-sensitive physiological pathways and thus confer health benefits. This supports their incorporation in various clinical, non-clinical, and research settings to develop evidence-based interventions and practices for cost-effective and efficacious ways to improve human health.

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