Pets and Stress

My mother used to say “you can always trust a person who has animal hair on them”. As a kid, I often pondered what this statement means. Are people who care for animals more trustworthy? Kinder? Gentler?

Well, a recent scientific study says that people who own pets are less stressed. Maybe not more trustworthy, but less stress WOULD indicate greater wellness. An idea worth considering.

The study examined the cardiovascular reactivity when exposed to psychological stress of 240 married couples, half of whom owned a pet. The researchers exposed the people to stressful situations (mental arithmetic problems and stuff like that) in a variety of social support conditions: alone, with pet or friend (friend present for non-pet owners), with spouse, with spouse and pet/friend. They found that the people with the pets had much lower rise in heart rate under such conditions; better than with their spouse or friends.

This evidence the healing help pets provide has been anecdotal for years. Hospitals, retirement homes and other caring facilities have used pets to help promote wellness with a lot of success. So it’s no surprise, especially where children are involved.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have conducted my own experiment by observing how the people in my family and visitors to my home relate to my cat and, of course how my cat relates to them.

My cat is a rather funny looking, very playful and affectionate youngish cat named Tony. He is a “hairless” breed, called Sphinx.

Tony has many jobs. One is to help me to write by sitting on my lap and purring loudly. He also reminds me to take breaks by standing up and walking on the computer keyboard! I digress.

One observation that is true for all unknowing participants in my “experiment”: everyone that enters my house, friends, family members and even the FedX guy, upon seeing Tony, their face changes and becomes somehow softer. It’s as if just seeing the cat makes them less stressed. Even the little girl who is very frightened of cats loves to watch the cat from a distance.

My partner, a high energy executive of a multi-national company, is of particular interest to this study. When he arrives home after work or travel, his body language is “Mr. corporate leader”. After greeting and kissing his people family members, he looks a bit more relaxed. But it’s after he picks up Tony and strokes him (usually followed by giving him some cat food), that he appears to really relax and turn off from work.

Last week, I had a friend over who says she doesn’t like cats. Later I found them on the couch, and my friend said “this cat really feels nice to touch”. Her face and Tony’s could be best described as “content”. Of course the cat had a very special extremely loud purr just for her.

So, the conclusions drawn from my very subjective experiment is that our pets really enrich our lives. It would be safe to speculate that, yes pets reduce stress levels in their owners. If you have a pet yourself, you probably agree!

Try your own experiment…. Ask your friends and coworkers about their pets and soak up the good feelings they radiate. Enjoy.

Cardiovascular Reactivity and the Presence of Pets, Friends, and Spouses: The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
Karen Allen, PhD, Jim Blascovich, PhD and Wendy B. Mendes, MS

Copyright (c) 2007 Ainsley Laing