Most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals. If you share your life with a dog or a cat, you probably don’t need scientific studies to tell you what you already know: your pet makes you feel better. There is nothing like being the recipient of unconditional love after all. Companion animals have evolved to become acutely attuned to humans and our behavior and emotions. They seem to know what we are feeling, and mirror those feelings back, not to mention their keen ability to make you laugh, and cry.
Those abilities and interrelationships with people are studied at the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. The Center is committed to expanding our knowledge of the interrelationships between people, animals, and their environment. In an article titled “8 Ways Your Pet Can Help Relieve Stress” the author talks with Dr. Alan Beck, Director of the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine to learn more about why animals help reduce stress. Here are five ways that we thought were most notable:
- 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 level, 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.
- Our pets decrease our reactions to stressful situations. One 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 or her waiting room, this effect may be exactly why. Dr. Beck's research showed that watching fish beforehand reduces the stress of undergoing dental procedures.
- 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.
- Pets help you be in the moment. "Stress really is bemoaning the past and worrying about the future," Dr. Beck says. So keeping your attention on the present can help reduce stress, and whether it's a meditative walk — as long as you put down that phone! — or a vigorous game of fetch, interacting with your pet keeps your focus on the now.
- Pets seem to help support feelings that make you more resilient at dealing with stress. One study from psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University showed that pet owners had better self-esteem and tended to be less lonely, less fearful, less depressed and less preoccupied than people without pets — and that all of these qualities correlated with feeling less perceived stress. This help with long-term stress management may be why some studies have shown that pet owners have lower blood pressure on average than non-owners.
Finding ways to spend more time with your companion animal are great ways to support mental health and a surefire way to make your furry companion very happy.