Sometimes finding time to walk the dog or clean the litterbox seems like one more task to cram into your busy day. But it’s worth it. Here’s why: There are many ways our pets actually help decrease the stress we feel in our daily lives.
To learn more about how and why animals help reduce stress, we talk with Dr. Alan M. Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.
1. 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 reading, 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.
2. Our pets decrease our reactions to stressful situations. 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 waiting room, this effect may be exactly why; Dr. Beck’s research showed that watching fish beforehand reduces the stress of undergoing dental procedures.
3. Pet owners on average get more exercise, especially dog owners. “People have been suggesting exercise as a way of dealing with stress and depression for a long time, and there’s good data that dog owners walk more often and take longer walks,” Dr. Beck says. While you might not make it to the gym, which benefits only yourself, your feeling of responsibility toward your dog is often more motivating. And he thinks cats can have some effect as well: “You’re not running around the block, but at least you have to get up to get that toy from under that couch.”
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Pets lower stress by fulfilling our need for touch, which we find comforting. And what’s more, they feel the same way about it. If you’re grooming a horse, not only will you experience the relaxation response, Beck says, but put your hand on the horse, and you’ll feel its heart rate slow down. Same when you pet your dog: “There’s a certain excitement at first, but then its heart rate goes down.”
7. 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.
8. Finally, they make us laugh! “We find humor watching them, and laughter is another way of mitigating stress,” Dr. Beck says.
And none of this is surprising, he says, because our interactions with our pets are so similar to our interactions with other people: “You feel less stress in the company of a trusted friend, and we view our companion animals as trusted friends.”