Owning a pet can reduce stress and improve many aspects of your health.”Among other things, animals contribute to raising self-esteem, significantly lowering anxiety levels, improving attitude toward others and opening lines of communication. Indeed, multiple studies indicate that pets are powerful forms of stress relief, lowering not only blood pressure but also harmful stress hormones like cortisol, which is associated with depression and anxiety, and elevating beneficial ones like oxytocin, which is linked to happiness and relaxation. Some people experienced increased output of endorphins and dopamines after just five minutes with an animal.
And while it’s usually the four-legged furries that get all the credit, other pets can help, too. Simply watching a fish tank versus a bare wall for 30 minutes lowers blood pressure significantly. Observing an aquarium can be an even more powerful relaxant than several proven meditative techniques. “With geriatric patients we see a bridge of communication develop with staff and family when a dog visits.” The most credible studies of the health benefits relate to cardiovascular disease . Heart attack patients with pet companions survive longer than those without, according to several studies.
Karen Allen, PhD, a medical researcher at the University of Buffalo, conducted a 1999 study of 48 stockbrokers who had high blood pressure and concluded that owners of a cat or dog had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than those who had no pets. “When we told the group that didn’t have pets about the findings, many went out and got them,” she says. In another study, elderly pet owners expressed more satisfaction with life than those without pets. Other studies have shown that pet ownership lessens the likelihood of depression in men with AIDS and can help people with Alzheimer’s disease or those with orthopaedic disorders.
People with pets are less likely to say they feel loneliness, which is one common source of stress. This is both because animals provide companionship and because they encourage friendly interactions with other people. “Animals change your perception of people, and their perception of you,” he says. “We perceive a person with an animal to be more approachable. If I saw you in the street, and I didn’t know you, I wouldn’t walk over to you. But if you were with your dog, I’d walk over and say, ‘What a cute dog,'” he says.
Pet owners on average get more exercise, especially dog owners. “People have been suggesting exercise as a way of dealing with stress and depression for a long time, and there’s good data that dog owners walk more often and take longer walks,” Dr. Beck says. While you might not make it to the gym, which benefits only yourself, your feeling of responsibility toward your dog is often more motivating. And he thinks cats can have some effect as well: “You’re not running around the block, but at least you have to get up to get that toy from under that couch.”
Our pets decrease our reactions to stressful situations. One study showed that subjects asked to do a mental arithmetic task in front of their pets showed smaller increases in blood pressure and heart rate — in contrast to doing it in front of their spouse, which made it more stressful. So if your dentist has a fish tank in his waiting room, this effect may be exactly why; Dr. Beck’s research showed that watching fish beforehand reduces the stress of undergoing dental procedures.
Just being around an animal decreases your blood pressure, which is one physical measure of stress. Ever since work by Dr. Beck and colleagues first showed that petting a dog or cat lowers a person’s blood pressure reading, this has been found to be true with other animals as well. In fact, you don’t even need to touch them. Just looking is enough: Watching fish in an aquarium has the same effect.
They fulfill our need for touch:
Psychologists have long understood the importance of touch to psychological health. A recent article in Psychology Today , for example, notes that physical touch decreases violence, builds trust, boosts the immune system, and reduces stress. All pet owners reap the benefits of touch, but it’s especially important for the increasing number of those who live alone.
They increase feelings of self-
esteem: A recent study from
researchers at Miami University and Saint Louis University found that pet owners had better self-esteem than non-pet owners. They also were less fearful and less preoccupied, all of which contributed to a decrease in overall stress levels.
They make us laugh. Laughter relieves our stress response and reduces tension. If you own a dog or a cat, chances are you spend a good deal of time laughing, and that’s good for your health. Your pet, whether it’s a dog or a cat (or a bird, iguana or rabbit), gives you a lot every day.
The health benefits, such as stress reduction, are reason enough for you to want the very best for them, including their own health, happiness, and well-being.