Lowering Stress with Companion Animals

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Loving a pet brings many health benefits to humans

Companion Animals & Health and Well Being

Touch is an essential ingredient to well-being in humans and animals. Not everyone has healthy touch in their lives, and animals can provide some of the positive benefits from touch. Petting an animal lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and can give a sense of connection. It warms the heart, the mind, and the body. Pets can mitigate anxiety, stress, and depression -- and can bring joy into your life. Pets encourage being in the moment, being more physical and getting outside or out in nature. Pets provide companionship, and especially for those who are lacking close extended family or friends, pets can literally be a lifesaver.

Loving an animal is very profound. Animals don't judge or criticize. They don't care what you look like, or how successful you are. They help you come into present time, to simply "be here now" and that is enough to lift your spirits. If engaging with your pet encourages exercise, then that is a huge plus. Many people find that walking a dog is an easy way to engage with strangers, and thus, dogs can alleviate feelings of isolation.

Pet ownership doesn't fix everything! It is not a cure for mental distress. But it can help someone who is wanting to feel better. And it is not for everyone, as it requires a level of responsibility and financial commitment (Average $100-$200 a month for a dog for food, toys, and basic vet care.) If you are not ready for pet ownership, there are many ways to bring animals into your life. Volunteering is a great way as local shelters and rescues always need help with socializing, dog walking, grooming and other tasks. Many have foster programs which allow you to take an animal home and love them, helping them become ready for adoption.

Remember, never get a puppy from a pet store or online, or from a breeder you don't know or haven't properly vetted. They are likely to come from a puppy mill, raised in terrible conditions, and may have physical or psychological problems which are not obvious at first. Shelter and rescue dogs make the best companions!

Summary of Studies of Major Health Benefits of Pet Companionship

* Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.

* People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.

* One study even found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.

* Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.

* Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.

* Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.

* Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.

* While people with pets often experience the greatest health benefits, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat.

* Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate.

"There are many reasons why dogs are called humans' best friends: not only do they offer unparalleled companionship, but a growing body of research shows they also boost human health. Owning a dog can prompt you to be more physically active — have leash, will walk. It can also: help you be calmer, more mindful, and more present in your life make kids more active, secure, and responsible improve the lives of older individuals make you more social and less isolated Just petting a dog can reduce the petter's blood pressure and heart rate (while having a positive effect on the dog as well). Get Healthy, Get a Dog, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, details the many ways that dogs can improve the lives of humans."

Research by Barker and Dawson studied 92 cardiac outpatients and found that those who were pet owners lived longer than those who did not have a pet. Later studies by Barker and Dawson involving “5,741 people showed many health benefits concerning cardiac health such as lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels than did non-pet owners.”

The Science News website reported similar findings by psychiatrist Erika Friedmann, of the University of Pennsylvania, who studied patients with heart disease, and after being discharged from the hospital “having a pet at home proved a stronger predictor of survival than having a spouse or extensive family support.”

In an article on the Science News website, entitled Stress Goes to the Dogs Psychologist Judith Siegel, reports that "345 elderly pet owners cited proportionately fewer physician visits over one year than did 593 same-age counterparts with no pets." How effective dogs are in helping humans manage stress was shown in this same article, which reported that women doing stressful math tests did much better when they did them in the presence of their companion dog than they did with either the presence of a researcher or close female friend. The implication of this study is that their dog helped them feel less stress. They were thus more productive.

Since stress is such a significant factor in many illnesses, anything that reduces stress is a major health benefit. As Rebecca Campo reports in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare:

"Compared to participants with a close friend present, those with their dog present had lower heart rate and diastolic blood pressure while undergoing stressors, and tended to have lower heart rate and systolic blood pressure when recovering from stressors. This study indicates that...dogs may be associated with greater reductions in their owner's cardiovascular reactivity to stress...."

The Story of Eric and Peety - A Rescue Dog Who Saved His Life

A three-hundred-pound man was told by his doctor to get a cemetery plot -- or adopt a dog. He adopted an overweight rescue dog, and he walked his way to health, lost over 140 pounds, overcame diabetes, and got off his meds. And Petey lost 25 pounds also.

Veterans and Companion Dogs to Mitigate PTSD

So many veterans have found that the right companion dog can help them turn their life around. It can help them manage stress, provide a sense of safety, and connection from one heart to another. Here is just one story of a combat Marine who met Fred, a dog he met in Afghanistan, who was able to find love and a special bond. His story has helped so many others get inspired about the healing journey.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection



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