The Truth About Cats and Dogs

Pets Better Than Friends, Spouses at De-Stressing Their Owners

Sept. 24, 2002 -- The sounds of "meowing" and "woofing" may be more comforting than supportive spouses or friends for stressed out individuals. One significant reason why Fluffy and Fido are better able to calm their owners is because they are nonjudgmental.

Even though most people don't consider pets a stress reliever, writes study author Karen Allen, PhD, of the State University of New York at Buffalo, responses to stress combined with feelings expressed by pet owners indicates that social support can cross species.

In a recent study lead by Allen and associates, 240 married couples, half of them pet owners, were given stressful tasks to do: mental arithmetic or holding their hand in ice water for two minutes. People who had pets nearby before and during the tests had lower heart rates and lower blood pressure. They completed the arithmetic tests with fewer errors. And their heart rate and blood pressure returned to normal faster after the ice-water test. Non-pet owners, on the other hand, didn't perform as well demonstrating more stress and making more mistakes even when alone or when their spouse or a friend was nearby. Spouses and friends, however, were encouraged to lend support during both experiments.

When asked whether the stress-inducing tasks were "challenging" or "threatening," pet owners were more inclined to say they were challenging. If they were alone, the non-pet owners also responded similarly.

Allen's study, as described in the September issue of the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, suggests that "the findings demonstrate that pets can buffer reactions to acute stress as well as reduce the perception of stress."

The researchers also suggest that the study participants may have seen their spouse or friend as judgmental of their performance, which increased stress levels. Pets were not seen as judgmental.

Other findings from the study include:

  • Elderly individuals with pets are buffered from the impact of stressful life events and as a result visit their doctors less often.
  • Pet owners with AIDS are less depressed than those without pets.
  • Service dogs have a positive effect on the general disposition of individuals with disabilities.
  • Heart attack survival rates are higher for people who own pets.
  • Dog ownership reduces the blood pressure in children who are reading aloud.