A Pet Project Can Aid Your Health
Karen Allen, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. For 10 years, she has been looking at the effect of stress on blood pressure. She and colleagues have studied single women, married couples, stockbrokers, caregivers of people with disabilities, and others. But her studies aren't what you might expect. Her main goal has been learning whether pets can help reduce the impact of stress.
What she found, she says, is that pets are good for people. In study after study, the presence of a pet kept the blood pressure down. "For those who love and care for animals," she's concluded, "they truly are a healthy pleasure."
Nancy Peterson agrees. Ms. Peterson is coordinator of the Pets for Life Training Centers for the Humane Society of the United States. "Pets are good for our emotional and physical health," she says. "Caring for a companion animal can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment and lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation in all age groups."
A range of benefits
Ms. Peterson, who trains dogs for people with disabilities, cites studies that show having a dog raises survival rates in patients who have had cardiac arrest. "Dog walking, pet grooming and even petting provide increased physical activity," she says. "That strengthens the heart, improves blood circulation and slows the loss of bone tissue." But perhaps the biggest benefit pets provide is emotional.
"Sometimes elderly people find themselves living alone because they have outlived loved ones, or because they live far from any family," Ms. Peterson says. But adopting an animal from a local shelter can provide a remedy. "If you're older, a pet can offer you a sense of well-being, a sense of encouragement and even a reason for living. Being responsible for another life can add new meaning to your own. And having to care for and provide a loving home to a companion animal can also help you remain active and healthy."
Dr. Allen says, only half kidding, that there is even some evidence a pet can be more helpful than a spouse for controlling blood pressure. During one of the first studies she and her colleagues did of women and dogs, a participant asked the researchers to compare the effect of her husband with that of her dog.
"At first we were greatly amused," Dr. Allen says. "But later we decided this was a terrific idea. Basically we found that pets [dogs or cats] were much better at reducing blood pressure responses to stress than were spouses." The presence of a spouse, she explains, dramatically increased blood pressure. The presence of a pet did not. When both the spouse and the pet were present, the blood pressure stayed down.
A personal experience
Dr. Allen's interest in this research came from her own experience. "I started doing these studies because I was impressed by the calming effect of my Saint Bernard. I could feel my pulse rate become slower when I was interacting with her." Many years and several studies later, she says, she's still impressed by how animals affect peoples' response to stress.
Not everyone gets the benefits from pet ownership. "Pets have the effects we describe in our papers only when people really love their pets and spend time interacting with them," Dr. Allen says. "People who have a pet as a status symbol do not derive the benefits of the pet's friendship any more than they would derive an emotional benefit from a car or other material possession.
"I would recommend that before anyone gets a pet that he or she borrow one for about a week," Dr. Allen adds. "Not everyone is suited to the responsibility that comes with a pet. Pet shelters are testimony to this sad fact."
Ms. Peterson adds that not all of us want to commit to the long-term care of a pet. But there is still a way to make animals a part of your life. "Volunteering at an animal shelter would be a great way to get a 'fur fix' and help the animals awaiting homes."